A Bridge in West Africa

A BRIDGE IN WEST AFRICA

A memoir

by

Gavan McDonell

We had been staying for a few days at the old abbey in Connemara in the west of Ireland, where the light bursts out of the green hills and the sea dies in a silver shroud of an afternoon when the sun sets beyond Arran. Knowing that we were going on a picnic one of the nuns suggested we take with us a young girl student there whose father was a chief at Bathurst in the Gambia on the West African coast. She was tall and slim and very black, but she had the manner of the demurely convent bred, and the soft stroke of a Connemara accent.

It was mid-summer, and all the clocks had been advanced for daylight saving time. Except in the Abbey where God’s time was not to be interfered with. Carried away with the treat of the afternoon’s holiday with us, the freedom of the hills and meadows, and telling stories of her home, she had let the hours slip by, until she suddenly gave a start, breaking into the dreams of her world, and said in the western brogue,”And now, could you be tellin’ me, what time would it be back in the Abbey?”

Worlds away, and fairy castles, and leprechauns, and the black-robed, gliding nuns, and the toll of the evening bells.

As it turned out a year or so later, Africa began for me in 1958 at Bathurst, with the moist breeze at sunset, opulent hibiscus and fragrance laden frangipani, the stretched dark slab of the Atlantic horizon at dawn, long-gowned servants padding through the mud-walled guest-house, appearing noiselessly in the middle of the room, smiling, always smiling. And it ended, years later, much as it began, not at Bathurst but with the same ease of light, of air, the riffle of a drum, the enigmas of the smiles.

But not long after Bathurst came Accra, the capital of the then new nation of Ghana. Only a year before that broad West African expanse of beaches, rain forest, orchard bush and desert had been known for centuries as the Gold Coast, land of the Ga people, the Akan, the Fante, the Ashanti, the Hausa and the secretive folk of the savannah.

‘Every Sunday they make an offering to Taberah of cankee, which is their bread, mixing it with palm oil. This is a stated custom, but the same is performed occasionally at other times. In special cases, as of some great distress by sickness or want of rains, and apprehension by famine, they sacrifice a sheep or goat; and when the sea is tempestuous for several days together, that they can catch no fish, this they look upon as token of their idol’s displeasure. The victim being killed, and cut in pieces, some part of it is thrown upon the rock, which is interpreted to be eaten by Taberah, because it is devoured, as though by some great birds that hover there; and the other parts of the flesh the people dress for their own eating, and then sit around, and there feast upon it.

Thomas Thompson, An Account of Two Missionary Voyages, London, 1758.

In the market at Accra, a grass-roofed stall, the table covered two feet high with skulls. Dog skulls, goat skulls, snake skulls, bird skulls. Packets of herbs. Rolled in newspaper, and leaves. Powders and berries. Feathers of bright birds in armlets and amulets. Duiker bones and chicken bones. Unspeakable objects, but commonplace, charred. Seared with imaginings. In the middle of the pile a round, brown face with gleaming eye, manic, weaving around, above and among the skulls, the shells, the feathers, casseroled in the smell of herbs and rotting flesh. This was the juju stall, and its vendor. Drums beat in the morning air.

An embarrassed laugh as the white man approached. The sounds of scurrying from the hut behind-a rat, a person, a spirit. The women of the market, wrapped large in their long cloths printed in the colors of the land, greens and browns and reds, big-breasted under white blouses, swaying against the table, fat muscled arms and long molded fingers turning over the talismans of the living spirits around us. As if in protection a tall Fulani man touched with one hand the amulet at this neck containing a fragment from the Koran and with the other stroked up and down, back and forth, a dried brown skull on the bench. The one God fortified with the many.

Dust rose, scattered by the passersby on their way to the meat and fish and cassava and vegetables. Women at the cloth stalls, hung with English and Dutch and Indian cottons in the designs and fashions favored by the Ghanaians, laughed and cackled and flirted with their buyers and assistants, and suckled their babies as they went.

And the mad eye at the juju stall wove in and out, glowing among the dust and bones, in and out of the spotlight of the sun. Lusts, joys, fears, enticements shone out from the eye darting there among the shades. And beneath it all the drums, the rush of intoxication, of desire and love, of rage and madness, close, close.

I went one evening to a dinner party given by a senior English army officer in the military cantonments. During the short twilight drinks were served in the garden by servants in stiff white shirts and long white trousers. The talk was of the current preoccupations-the battles between Nkrumah, the first prime minister of an independent Ghana and the traditional chiefs, the price of cocoa, the lover knifed at a nearby door, de Gaulle’s ambitions in North Africa, two thousand miles away across the Sahara but for Ghana a close neighbor.

But at dinner, in the wine, the four Ghanaian guests, at ease as commissioned ranks and high civil servants and lawyers could be among their European colleagues, spoke of things closer to hand. Two were in the army, one a senior diplomat, one from the Treasury, all of them from Oxford, or Cambridge or Sandhurst, traveled, cosmopolitan, but still not far from the village. Each told stories of the powers, of leaves fluttering on still nights in wild moonlight dances, alternately soaring or softly sibilant. Of death done by ghostly proxy. Of the sacrifice of children at the yam festivals, beheaded without cry or tremor, swaying on their mother’s backs as they walked beside the surf. Of the access of strength, or the conferring of oblivion, upon the great and the powerful. Not long after I met some of the practitioners.

Gerhard Schultz, the contractor’s foreman for the construction of the bridge I had designed across the Tano river, in the rain forests of western Ghana, had only been six weeks in the country. He was unfamiliar with the workings of the clause in all such contracts requiring that local religious customs be observed. This clause stipulated that the contractor should pay the costs of any such observances which were deemed necessary by the local priests or priestesses to smooth the path of the construction through the dwellings of any resident gods.

Late one afternoon I returned home to find awaiting me a telegram from Schultz saying that the work was delayed because of exorbitant demands by the priests. He urged me to go to negotiate for him. I left that night late, driving in the cool and relative safety of darkness when the roads were free of the enthusiastic, erratic drivers of the many mammy-wagons. I arrived at the site about midday.

Schultz had awoken that morning tired, and the events of the previous day we re already obscure in this memory. He had had a tree felled where the bridge was to be built. The local laborers had objected but-this was his first job in Africa-he had overruled them, even the gray-headed, sober headman. The dust from the tree’s fall had scarcely settled before a throng of local people had appeared in the clearing on the river bank where the construction sheds and equipment had been set up. One of the men, with a gold-painted staff and crooked , betel-stained teeth, and one of the women, withered and skinny with flat, scrawny breasts and a dirty, white cloth draped around her waist, separated themselves from the rest and gesticulated and snarled at Schultz.

He did not expect this frontal assault, so soon after his arrival, in what now seemed a strange and hostile land, full of the new political liberties, simply because he had cut down a tree. If this was what could happen over one tree, would the bridge ever be built. But he soon learnt: four gods had been in residence near the bridge site and their peace and dignity had been ruptured by the sacrilegious destruction of the tree. The preparations for construction had begun before any offerings had been made to them or requests to move had been transmitted through their agents, the priests of the area.

In particular Taakora, the god of the holy river Tano, the supreme god on earth of the Akan people, from whom came Nkrumah himself, had been especially disturbed and would require great propitiation. In addition the spot chosen for the bridge was more than usually venerated for there lived nearby four gods watching over not only that vicinity but also long reaches of the river.

The man and the woman snarling at Schultz were priest and priestess. Through the heat and hubbub Schultz learnt that customary religious observances required that, before any building work was commenced, offerings must be made and libations poured to the gods. Further libations would be required at various times while the bridge was being built. No further work was to be allowed until full reparation had been made for the transgressions already committed, libation had been completed and the gods placated. For the due ceremonies to proceed five hundred bottles of gin and six cases of Scotch whisky would be required for use in the rituals and for distribution among the priests and their attendants.

The foreman was angered and afraid. He was afraid because he was the only white man within miles and his offense was great. He knew that the thick green forests around, the dark caverns of vines and bushes, gloomy even in the midday sun, would cover his body without trace. He was afraid, too, of his employers, far away in Switzerland, of their annoyance at the delay and the added costs of the required tribute.

And he was angry at his loss of face, his ignorance and the price he was expected to pay for it all. Five hundred bottles of gin and six cases of whisky to assuage five imaginary gods! The profits would be gone. They had quoted low on the job, hoping to find favour in the eyes of the timber company who were giving the bridge to the local community, and, of course, to allow them to export logs from the rich surrounding forests.

He remonstrated for a while, but he knew the sad-eyed local headman was not translating his words with conviction. He threw his hands up, nodded to the headman, and walked to his pickup. The crowd that had gathered moved slowly, grudgingly, aside. Back at his camp near the town, he thought for a while, drank another beer, and then sent telegrams to his head office and to me.

‘The king’s messengers, with gold breast plates, made way for us, and we commenced our round…The caboceers, as did their superior captains and attendants, wore Ashantie clothes, of extravagant price, made from the costly foreign silks…of incredible size and weight, and thrown over the shoulder exactly like the Roman toga. Wolves’ and rams’ heads as large as life, cast in gold, were suspended like round bills, and rusted in blood…The large drums supported on the head of one man, and beaten by two others, were braced around with the thigh bones of their enemies, and ornamented with their skulls…Finely grown girls stood behind the chairs of some, with silver basins. Their stools (of the most laborious carved work, and generally with two large bells attached to them) were conspicuously placed on the heads of favourites…The prolonged flourishes of the horns, a deafening tumult of drums, and the fuller concert of the intervals, announced that we were approaching the king…the king’s four linguists were encircled by a splendor inferior to none, and their peculiar insignia, gold canes, were elevated in all directions, tied in bundles like fasces. A delay of several minutes whilst we severally approached to receive the king’s hand afforded to us a thorough view of h im; his deportment first excited my attention: native dignity in princes we are pleased to call barbarous was a curious spectacle; his manners were majestic, yet courteous;…he wore a fillet of aggrey beads round his temples, …over his right shoulder a red, silk cord, suspending three sapphires cased in gold; his bracelets were the richest mixture of beads and gold and his fingers were covered with rings; his cloth was of a dark green silk.’

TE Bowditch, ‘Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantie’. London, 1819

The paramount chief of that area was a tall, heavy shouldered man, with oiled, dark brown skin and the bearing that went with a long ancestry of chiefs and nobles among the local tribes. He had been enstooled in his paramountcy-that is to say, enthroned-in a large and splendid ceremony just two years before, not long after he had returned from a graduate course in economics at Oxford. He had taken a very ordinary degree from the same university ten years before, spending much of his time and his uncle’s money in the pursuits well suited to West african princes at British places of higher learning in that period. Which means that he was alternatively lionized and patronized. Three years at Oxford, the selective attentions of white women, and the practiced indignities of old colonial hands, stockbrokers’ sons and English landladies had refined an inherited gift for cocking a weather eye and divining a middle way.

His tribe had never been powerful, even though over the centuries it had often patrolled a large area. Its lands lay between the powerful Fante chiefdoms of the coasts and the dominating Ashanti kingdom to the north. Its destiny was to be a buffer zone, and despite all its care it had often enough paid the price. Though the main sources of slaves for the foreign trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had been further to the north and east, from time to time this tribe had been raided, when supplies elsewhere were short. At other times, his fathers had had to work diligently to avoid disaster. To spot a dicey situation, to fashion protective if sometimes shifty compromises, came naturally enough to the paramount chief.

When Nkrumah’s independence movement had gathered force and begun to isolated the traditional chiefs and conservative wealthy cocoa farmers, he was one of the few chiefs who had kept foot in both camps. Kwame Nkrumah, the Osagyefo, the Redeemer, had been a young lad from a village not so many miles to the south, near the mouth of the Tano River, who had gone off to the United States and come back to lead the new men chanting independence.

He had come to the district at the head of a motley but overwhelming party of the young, the market women, town workers and the village poor. And the now paramount chief, then merely one of several chiefs, had made sure that he was welcome. Favours followed. The paramount chief had been selected for special tasks as a mediator in the councils of the chiefs and in heading off trouble with factions among the Ashanti, with whom he was on good terms but who were the principal tribal opponents of the new regime. He received his rewards. The nine-month course which he had completed at Oxford, with trimmings to taste, was one of them. And, when he returned, the paramountcy.

Another was the bridge. The timber company which had made the contract, and financed it, was part of a large European conglomerate with diverse interests throughout West Africa. There were many areas in western Ghana covered with tall trees and thick jungle, but companies with the necessary means of bulldozers and machinery and staff and cash to run a logging operation were scarce. For several years the paramount chief had used his influence in the political councils and the public service to have the timber company pointed towards his tribal lands, rather than those of other tribes.

The company itself had received little hint of his direct personal interest and had found the chief stiffly dignified and uncompromising whenever they had had negotiations. In the end, before permission could be obtained for their forestry lease, they had been obliged to agree to build the bridge. It was to be a proper, concrete bridge, not just one made of logs, and it was to be properly designed by an engineer (me, as it turned out). It was to have a pedestrian footway, in addition to the wide one-vehicle lane for timber trucks, to allow people unimpeded passage across the Tano river. There was to be no such bridge for many miles.

To some extent this was simply a gesture by the company, as they would need a robust structure to exploit the several thousand acres of their lease across the river. But they would have preferred to build it much more cheaply, and not be bound in humiliating agreement with an obstinate, up-country chief.

Negotiation with the Asantehene, King of the Ashanti, was something they could understand, carried on with the autocratic ritual and formality of an eighteenth century European court. Dealing with the Asantehene, even the paler version, subdued by the Republic, who now sat in the castle at Kumasi, was one thing; with these conniving country nobodies it was quite another, and the company didn’t like it. Not so long ago it would all have been settled by a bribe to a favorite of the Asantehene, or by some well-placed pressure upon the British District Officer in charge of the area, anxious for his district’s exports.

But to the paramount chief it was a very good deal indeed, the sort that he liked, where everybody, himself especially, won. The company was getting its timber lease and a long flow of profits. The national government was getting handsome royalties, and later there would follow taxes. The people of the area were getting a way across the Tano, open even in the monsoon when the river was a roaring torrent, to the rich hunting and the good land on the other side, and to the large towns further up the road. He, himself, had already received a big ‘dash’, a new Mercedes saloon, and could expect further benefits in the future.

And everybody was getting the good, concrete bridge, symbol of common-sense and mutual support and the modern spirit, solid witness ot the wisdom and good sense of them all, whom it would celebrate for many years to all who knew the story.

And now this foolish Swiss had stirred up the priests and their attendants. The people were anxious. The chief’s rivals were already loose, fomenting fear of foreigners and foreign ways. The timber company might be frightened off.

‘Among many of the peoples of West Africa-and, for that matter, many other parts of Africa, especially in the forests-the closest social bonds lay not within the paternal family, between father and child, but between uncle or aunt and nephew and niece. Descent passed in the female line, Obligations of loyalty, trust, support, affection bound brother and sister. The popular explanation was that one can be sure that one’s sister’s children are of your blood, but can you be sure of your wife’s? When a chief’s mother had died, it was his sister, not his wife, who became the Queen Mother, or, as we would say, the First Lady. This connection was especially strong among families of the royal. It’s history cast a along shadow.

The Pharaonic state was bureaucratic, not feudal…its great title holders were officials, not hereditary territorial magnates…not perhaps inevitably, but not by accident either…a radical growth of the institution produced a corresponding development…in the shape of the god-king, paying the highest honor to his god-bearing mother, and practising royal incest with his potentially god-bearing sister…’

Roland Oliver, ‘The African Experience’. London, 1993

The news had been brought to the paramount chief in mid-afternoon by his linguist Among most of the tribes of the rain-forest running across West Africa the custom was that the chief could not be addressed directly, but only through an official known as the linguist, or okyeami, who provided the channel to and from the royal ears and mouth. The linguist was appointed by the chief, and in turn appointed retainers. The post of linguist was not hereditary. In this one powerful position were combined the two staff, private secretary and press secretary, of which modern potentates feel the need. But other functions were also often joined in this person-confidant, strategist, procurer, fixer.

The paramount chief and the linguist talked long about the crisis in the project on which they had both worked so hard. Sometimes silence fell between them. Sometimes they spoke in rapid exchanges. After one such burst, the linguist went to one of the larger huts and soon returned with a robust woman of about forty, wearing a bright turban and wrapped about in a flower, purple, cotton-print cloth. She was the paramount chief’s younger sister. She sat down with the two men and listened without response, head down, serious, intent, to her brother’s words, and then to the slow sentences of the linguist, heavy with respect. About an hour or so before dark would fall, she and the linguist left.

As he later explained to me about the events of that afternoon and the night, Schultz, after he had sent the telegrams, was sitting on the veranda of his prefabricated hut drinking beer as the light was fading. The first flush of anger, fear and frustration had subsided. He was now puzzling over what to do, how to respond to the heavy demands the priests had made upon him. Absorbed in his thoughts, his cigarettes and his beer, he felt the still, lonely evening settle around him. The soft noises of the steward preparing the meal in the lean-to kitchen, and the subdued by cheerful hum form the village over the hill were reassuring presences.

He did not notice for some time the two girls, quietly tittering, under trees at the edge of the clearing. They had been bathing in the river below. Their hair was still wet and their body cloths were still damp. He had not been long enough in the country to be sure whether what finally stirred his attention were childish giggles coming from embarrassed teenagers, or more mature signals of invitation. But in either case he had no wish to become worse entangled, this time over women. He stood up and made a gesture of dismissal, calling out “Go away, go away” in English, and went inside.

But by the time the dark fall of night had shut out the world beyond, and the hut had become a small glowing center, and he was halfway through his meal and sipping another beer, the two girls had appeared again, this time on his veranda. They were scuffling lightly and grinning wide, white smiles around the door. The soft light from the only kerosene mantle lamp highlighted the blue sheen of foreheads, the shoulders finely sculpted from the daily pounding of the fufu, the cassava meal which was staple food, and the gleam of smiling eyes.

He called out again for them to go away, but less firmly. A little later, he consulted his steward who had long experience of Europeans. The old man assured him there was no danger from the local people if he allowed the young females in his house. They might even think it was a gesture of reconciliation. Schultz told him to ask the by now dancing, humming girls to enter.

They sat on the floor, and on the chairs and table, looked at his cups and fingered his shirt, laughed at his razor and shaving soap, played ball with his just washed clothes which the steward had laid out on his bed. The older, bigger one jumped up and down on the bed and patted the sheet beside her, laughing and joking with her sister as she did.

The faint light from the lamp in the other room shone on her dark arms and breasts from which the cloth had dropped. As he stood beside the bed, arms akimbo, wondering what to do, she took hold of him with one hand and with the other undid his belt. As he fell upon her, the younger one stroked his back from behind. Through the night he played the games of the sexual children who had taken possession of his bed.

When he awoke in the full light of morning he was anxious and confused. His memories of the night were a tangle, a sweet tangle. Those of the previous day, of his anger, fear and frustration, were shadowed by the shapes of the night. The first had gone before first light, one slipping out from beside him on the narrow bed, the other from the mat on the floor where she had finally fallen asleep. They left on his pillow one of the flowers that had adorned their hair when they arrived.

He was drinking coffee when the small group of men arrived at the edge of the clearing. One of them called out to the steward in the local language.

“Master, these men come to make palaver about the bridge.”

Three of the men were barefoot, clad in cloth wrapped around the waist. The fourth, who was tall and strode impressively, wore sandals, had a patterned, handwoven silk cloth draped across one shoulder in toga fashion, and carried a long, carved stave. On its top, painted in shining gold, were two figures. One was of a man, a prisoner, kneeling and bound in chains. His head was pulled back from behind by the left hand of the other figure, an executioner, who, in his right hand, flourished a long, golden knife.

“This man speaks for the chief,” the steward said.

Schultz’s anxieties returned. The events of the night still formed around him a kind of touchable, a transgressive haze. The images of the men before him, even of the gold monstrosity on the top of the staff, were shot across with moving hands, hard nipples and full lips. His thoughts were slowed by the numbnesses of pleasure. But his fears were groundless.

Through the steward the lingust explained the situation in the local language(he could speak passable English, I later discovered, but would not lose face by using it in negotiations). The paramount chief had heard of the dispute the previous day. He was upset that the contractor had been insulted by the priests-”ignorant, foolish people”, the linguist said in anger. The local people were simple and easily stirred, it was important not to offend them.

The paramount chief had intervened on the contractor’s behalf and the priests had agreed that only two-thirds of the amount of whisky and gin they had at first demanded would now be necessary for the offerings and libations. The paramount chief, the linguist explained, was sorry the foreman and his employers had been troubled, but these were simple people, he repeated, and if their small worries were now attended to the paramount chief assured him there would be no more.

He stressed the gracious interest the paramount chief had taken in the unwitting embarrassment to the gods which Schultz had innocently provoked, the gullibility of the people, the anger of the priests, the importance of the bridge, the high expectations the chief had already formed of his company, and, from several reports he had received , of him, Schultz, personally. There was no mention of the girls in the night.

So it was all quickly fixed, and the linguist and his attendants had left the clearing before thirty minutes had gone. I arrived in early afternoon to find bustling preparations for the ceremonies next morning already begun. There was drumming in the village and it continued throughout the night. There were many comings and goings at Schultz’s camp. In mid afternoon two local government councillors and a member of the national parliament for the district turned up in a large American car.

These were great local dignitaries it seemed to Schultz, but were, in fact, to the local people, men of much lower status than the paramount chief and his linguist. Dressed in shirts and well groomed trousers, speaking good English, they explained how easily such misunderstandings as yesterday’s could arise. They, of course, didn’t believe in all the juju but all the farmers and v illage people around did.

“Like children,” the member of parliament said, laughing loudly with his head thrown back, showing red betel nut stains on his teeth, slapping his thigh with one huge hand and with the other emptying the last of yet another bottle of beer down his throat. “Like children”, repeated a councillor, and another round of laughter echoed, and the others joined in and slapped their thighs and quaffed their beer, until at last both Schultz and I, too, laughed uproariously and drank our beer and looked as though we might even slap our thighs.

The light was failing and the frogs and cicadas struck up, the cocoa trees and the banana fronds and the tall forest trees turned black, the lamps flickered in the village, and the drumming, on and on, on and on, went into the night.

Not long after dawn next day the first of hundreds of people had gathered in the clearing above the bridge site. Two priests and two priestesses had spent the night there, their faces and bodies covered with the white powdered clay which, in the Ghanaian forests, is the incense of holiness. Two groups of drummers, using chest-high male and female drums made of hollowed tree trunks with tightly stretched skins across one end, had commenced a low insistent beat.

The paramount chief arrived some time later in his Mercedes, a clutch of councillors in a pickup, the member of Parliament turned up in his Ford. The chief, led by the linguist with his golden staff of office, and shaded by a brilliant gold umbrella held high over him by a stolid attendant, walked down the hilly slope towards the river and sat on a chair near the drummers.

Soon, without announcement, as though on impulse, the priests and priestesses commenced to dance, slow, shuffling, awkward movements of the hips, guttural voices rising and falling in long, drawn-out wails. As they moved their assistants danced with them, sprinkling them with dust and white chalk, poking each other obscenely, treading the steps for a while and then retiring to let another take the place. For several hours the drumming and dancing rolled monotonously, mesmerically, the crowd gelled, the heat and steam of the morning rose, amnesia descended. One by one the dancers wandered off.

Only an old priestess was left, she who spoke for the god of the river, Taakora, himself. The beat of the drums had slowly risen. The drummers were covered in sweat, their shoulders and eyes and legs when twitching. The old, holy crone, her soiled white cloth around her waist, black, wizened face covered with white clay streaked with sweat, flat bags of breazts flapping against her rib-cage, shuffled and flailed around in a circle. Her red eyes rolled, alternately she hissed and spat low sounds or blew out lips in explosive circles. Around and around the drums were volleying.

She stopped and came over to where ‘the official party’ was standing. Starting with the paramount chief she threw white chalk over him, much as priests in Christian churches cast the sanctifying smoke from the censor over the faithful. She moved along the line, hissing as she went, spraying each face with dust, fixing each one with inflamed, red and rolling eyes which gleamed in a fierce glare, and yet focused catatonically inwards.

When she reached Schultz she stopped again. The drums stopped. She walked slowly around him several times, placing each old foot carefully after the other on the damp mud bank. She swayed thin hips, hissing and breathing, stopping sometimes to look at his eyes and to touch him, pulling her hand away as though touching red-hot metal. She stopped again, looking into his pale, nervous eyes with her red, ferocious ones.

The silence was long, no-one moved, standing next to him I could feel him stiffen. She slowly reached out her hand, took some of the white dust from a pottery bowl held by an assistant, gave a cry and a leap and threw it into his face in a light cloud. The drums rang out loudly again, she circled Schultz in that cramped, menacing shuffle, and launched over him great, white, cleansing clouds of benediction.

When she came to me she stopped again, and the drums too, and she walked, not shuffled, around me once, returning to look me in the eyes.. I had not realised before how controlled, baleful, malevolent were those black eyes in their red mesh of veins. She gave one last hiss, stamped her feet, shook her head angrily, threw some dust on the ground and moved away. No blessing for me, apparently, the latecomer, the originator of the bridge, not vouchsafed even the grudging acceptance of which Schultz, the sinner, but now a temporary member of the tribe, had been thought worthy.

As if on a signal the crowd, by now in hundreds, moved towards the river, caught in the one emotion. First the priests and priestesses, then the dozens of attendants and the drummers. Then the paramount chief, splendid in the red and green and gold silks of his kente toga, a blue embroidered skull-cap on his head, sheltered by the golden umbrella held above him by an attendant. Next the linguist and his wooden staff with gilded death on its top. Then Schultz and I and a representative of the timber company, and the politicians. Then the masses of local people and their children, in bright cloths and the women in coloured turbans, skins freshly oiled for the occasion now streaked with sweat and dust. They fanned down in a curve from the slope of the clearing to near the site of the bridge.

The priests had stopped beside the tree trunk Schultz had killed-killed, I write, and killed it was, where it sprawled in the fast, brown waters of the river. The drums were silent now and in the hush the people gathered close beneath the burning midday sun. Quiet. The uneasy shuffle of feet and the soft rush of the river.

The priestesses’ attendants dragged from the shade of the trees two large male goats, one brown, speckled with black, the other completely white. I had not seen them before. No doubt they had been tethered quietly all the time, but in the heated moment it seemed as though they had been spirited into place.

The old priestess came forward once more, muttering and growling, pulling the ears of one goat, pushing the rump of the other, scattering white clouds around her as she went, in and out, between and around the two goats. Then with another mad cry she grabbed the white goat and dragged it towards the river.

When I thought of it later, trying to remember how it happened, it scarcely seemed to have occurred in time at all. Two of the attendants, the two who had done most of the dancing with the old woman, rushed forward, taking the goat from her, almost knocking her over as she tottered off. The goat was hauled a few feet out along the dead tree. A long knife shone and the throat was slit in a stroke. A sharp hiss from the crowd. The paramount chief beside me stood impassive. In front of him the linguist, over whose shoulder I was looking, slowly revolved his staff between his fingers. The sun glinted from the golden figures of the kneeling prisoner and erect executioner as they turned.

The red blood spurted over the tree trunk and into the water. Still twitching in chilling death, the goat was thrown into the brown stream. The gore pulsed from its neck, staining the water as it splashed. A sacrifice to the gods of the river, it was to be carried away by the river. The gods of the place, the people hoped, would go with it, in peace and satisfaction, leaving space for the bridge to be built.

But they wouldn’t go. An eddy caught the body still plunging and kicking in its death throes, and brought it back again. Again it came around, and again, and then the kicking carcass turned, slowly moving out into the center of the stream where the current rushed, drifted downstream a little and, at first uncertainly and then faster, swung back again towards the shore.

The many lips which a few seconds previously had opened with hisses dropped apart in gasps, and a single, stifled gasp rose above the stiffened gathering. Once more the body circled slowly out into midstream, paused shakily on the fringe of the current, and traced its ghostly arc back to the starting point like a spirit in thrall. Breathing had stopped. The gasp was silently held. The old priestess stopped her growling and, bent forward on one leg, her hands crushing white clay between her fingers, she gazed in furious concentration, unmoving, joined with her eye’s beam to the circling corpse.

It turned again to the center of the river and the running current. Poised in midstream, in frozen seconds it inched a few feet downstream, backwards, forwards, still held in the circling eddy, and then broke free and plunged with the rushing water around the river bend. The white body, leaving a wash of bloody rust behind, was gone.

Hundreds of mouths exhaled in a swoosh. The drummer of the male drum beat it loudly, heavily, bang bang bang. I had watched the paramount chief through the last few minutes? hours? seconds? His face had stayed calm throughout. But the cheeks paled beneath their brown, the lips were strained and set as the grey shape circled in the water like a lost soul. Turning, he saw me watching and the face opened in a wide and condescending smile.

“The people will be happy now,” he said.

‘The blacks speak much of spirits appearing to them, and believe these are the souls of deceased persons, but they have little or no apprehension of a future state-they rather think that the soul, after death, keeps haunt about the body, and is latent in, or near its repository; and it must be grounded upon this imagination, that they have a custom of setting pots and basins, and other such furniture and utensils, at the graves of their kindred.

That which in some books of voyages is said, of the negroes of Guinea sacrificing to the devil, may have some truth in it; but nothing of that, literally speaking, is ever practised in any part of the Gold Coast, as I could ever learn by clear information. The blacks at Cape Coast are the very opposite of this, seeming rather to hold him in defiance.’

A BRIDGE IN WEST AFRICA
A Memoir
by
Gavan McDonell

c6600 words
A BRIDGE IN WEST AFRICA
A memoir
by
Gavan McDonell

We had been staying for a few days at the old abbey in Connemara in the west of Ireland, where the light bursts out of the green hills and the sea dies in a silver shroud of an afternoon when the sun sets beyond Arran. Knowing that we were going on a picnic one of the nuns suggested we take with us a young girl student there whose father was a chief at Bathurst in the Gambia on the West African coast. She was tall and slim and very black, but she had the manner of the demurely convent bred, and the soft stroke of a Connemara accent.
It was mid-summer, and all the clocks had been advanced for daylight saving time. Except in the Abbey where God’s time was not to be interfered with. Carried away with the treat of the afternoon’s holiday with us, the freedom of the hills and meadows, and telling stories of her home, she had let the hours slip by, until she suddenly gave a start, breaking into the dreams of her world, and said in the western brogue,”And now, could you be tellin’ me, what time would it be back in the Abbey?”
Worlds away, and fairy castles, and leprechauns, and the black-robed, gliding nuns, and the toll of the evening bells.

As it turned out a year or so later, Africa began for me in 1958 at Bathurst, with the moist breeze at sunset, opulent hibiscus and fragrance laden frangipani, the stretched dark slab of the Atlantic horizon at dawn, long-gowned servants padding through the mud-walled guest-house, appearing noiselessly in the middle of the room, smiling, always smiling. And it ended, years later, much as it began, not at Bathurst but with the same ease of light, of air, the riffle of a drum, the enigmas of the smiles.
But not long after Bathurst came Accra, the capital of the then new nation of Ghana. Only a year before that broad West African expanse of beaches, rain forest, orchard bush and desert had been known for centuries as the Gold Coast, land of the Ga people, the Akan, the Fante, the Ashanti, the Hausa and the secretive folk of the savannah.

‘Every Sunday they make an offering to Taberah of cankee, which is their bread, mixing it with palm oil. This is a stated custom, but the same is performed occasionally at other times. In special cases, as of some great distress by sickness or want of rains, and apprehension by famine, they sacrifice a sheep or goat; and when the sea is tempestuous for several days together, that they can catch no fish, this they look upon as token of their idol’s displeasure. The victim being killed, and cut in pieces, some part of it is thrown upon the rock, which is interpreted to be eaten by Taberah, because it is devoured, as though by some great birds that hover there; and the other parts of the flesh the people dress for their own eating, and then sit around, and there feast upon it.’
Thomas Thompson, An Account of Two Missionary Voyages, London, 1758.

In the market at Accra, a grass-roofed stall, the table covered two feet high with skulls. Dog skulls, goat skulls, snake skulls, bird skulls. Packets of herbs. Rolled in newspaper, and leaves. Powders and berries. Feathers of bright birds in armlets and amulets. Duiker bones and chicken bones. Unspeakable objects, but commonplace, charred. Seared with imaginings. In the middle of the pile a round, brown face with gleaming eye, manic, weaving around, above and among the skulls, the shells, the feathers, casseroled in the smell of herbs and rotting flesh. This was the juju stall, and its vendor. Drums beat in the morning air.
An embarrassed laugh as the white man approached. The sounds of scurrying from the hut behind-a rat, a person, a spirit. The women of the market, wrapped large in their long cloths printed in the colors of the land, greens and browns and reds, big-breasted under white blouses, swaying against the table, fat muscled arms and long molded fingers turning over the talismans of the living spirits around us. As if in protection a tall Fulani man touched with one hand the amulet at this neck containing a fragment from the Koran and with the other stroked up and down, back and forth, a dried brown skull on the bench. The one God fortified with the many.
Dust rose, scattered by the passersby on their way to the meat and fish and cassava and vegetables. Women at the cloth stalls, hung with English and Dutch and Indian cottons in the designs and fashions favored by the Ghanaians, laughed and cackled and flirted with their buyers and assistants, and suckled their babies as they went.
And the mad eye at the juju stall wove in and out, glowing among the dust and bones, in and out of the spotlight of the sun. Lusts, joys, fears, enticements shone out from the eye darting there among the shades. And beneath it all the drums, the rush of intoxication, of desire and love, of rage and madness, close, close.

I went one evening to a dinner party given by a senior English army officer in the military cantonments. During the short twilight drinks were served in the garden by servants in stiff white shirts and long white trousers. The talk was of the current preoccupations-the battles between Nkrumah, the first prime minister of an independent Ghana and the traditional chiefs, the price of cocoa, the lover knifed at a nearby door, de Gaulle’s ambitions in North Africa, two thousand miles away across the Sahara but for Ghana a close neighbor.
But at dinner, in the wine, the four Ghanaian guests, at ease as commissioned ranks and high civil servants and lawyers could be among their European colleagues, spoke of things closer to hand. Two were in the army, one a senior diplomat, one from the Treasury, all of them from Oxford, or Cambridge or Sandhurst, traveled, cosmopolitan, but still not far from the village. Each told stories of the powers, of leaves fluttering on still nights in wild moonlight dances, alternately soaring or softly sibilant. Of death done by ghostly proxy. Of the sacrifice of children at the yam festivals, beheaded without cry or tremor, swaying on their mother’s backs as they walked beside the surf. Of the access of strength, or the conferring of oblivion, upon the great and the powerful. Not long after I met some of the practitioners.

Gerhard Schultz, the contractor’s foreman for the construction of the bridge I had designed across the Tano river, in the rain forests of western Ghana, had only been six weeks in the country. He was unfamiliar with the workings of the clause in all such contracts requiring that local religious customs be observed. This clause stipulated that the contractor should pay the costs of any such observances which were deemed necessary by the local priests or priestesses to smooth the path of the construction through the dwellings of any resident gods.
Late one afternoon I returned home to find awaiting me a telegram from Schultz saying that the work was delayed because of exorbitant demands by the priests. He urged me to go to negotiate for him. I left that night late, driving in the cool and relative safety of darkness when the roads were free of the enthusiastic, erratic drivers of the many mammy-wagons. I arrived at the site about midday.

Schultz had awoken that morning tired, and the events of the previous day we re already obscure in this memory. He had had a tree felled where the bridge was to be built. The local laborers had objected but-this was his first job in Africa-he had overruled them, even the gray-headed, sober headman. The dust from the tree’s fall had scarcely settled before a throng of local people had appeared in the clearing on the river bank where the construction sheds and equipment had been set up. One of the men, with a gold-painted staff and crooked , betel-stained teeth, and one of the women, withered and skinny with flat, scrawny breasts and a dirty, white cloth draped around her waist, separated themselves from the rest and gesticulated and snarled at Schultz.
He did not expect this frontal assault, so soon after his arrival, in what now seemed a strange and hostile land, full of the new political liberties, simply because he had cut down a tree. If this was what could happen over one tree, would the bridge ever be built. But he soon learnt: four gods had been in residence near the bridge site and their peace and dignity had been ruptured by the sacrilegious destruction of the tree. The preparations for construction had begun before any offerings had been made to them or requests to move had been transmitted through their agents, the priests of the area.
In particular Taakora, the god of the holy river Tano, the supreme god on earth of the Akan people, from whom came Nkrumah himself, had been especially disturbed and would require great propitiation. In addition the spot chosen for the bridge was more than usually venerated for there lived nearby four gods watching over not only that vicinity but also long reaches of the river.
The man and the woman snarling at Schultz were priest and priestess. Through the heat and hubbub Schultz learnt that customary religious observances required that, before any building work was commenced, offerings must be made and libations poured to the gods. Further libations would be required at various times while the bridge was being built. No further work was to be allowed until full reparation had been made for the transgressions already committed, libation had been completed and the gods placated. For the due ceremonies to proceed five hundred bottles of gin and six cases of Scotch whisky would be required for use in the rituals and for distribution among the priests and their attendants.
The foreman was angered and afraid. He was afraid because he was the only white man within miles and his offense was great. He knew that the thick green forests around, the dark caverns of vines and bushes, gloomy even in the midday sun, would cover his body without trace. He was afraid, too, of his employers, far away in Switzerland, of their annoyance at the delay and the added costs of the required tribute.
And he was angry at his loss of face, his ignorance and the price he was expected to pay for it all. Five hundred bottles of gin and six cases of whisky to assuage five imaginary gods! The profits would be gone. They had quoted low on the job, hoping to find favour in the eyes of the timber company who were giving the bridge to the local community, and, of course, to allow them to export logs from the rich surrounding forests.
He remonstrated for a while, but he knew the sad-eyed local headman was not translating his words with conviction. He threw his hands up, nodded to the headman, and walked to his pickup. The crowd that had gathered moved slowly, grudgingly, aside. Back at his camp near the town, he thought for a while, drank another beer, and then sent telegrams to his head office and to me.

”The king’s messengers, with gold breast plates, made way for us, and we commenced our round…The caboceers, as did their superior captains and attendants, wore Ashantie clothes, of extravagant price, made from the costly foreign silks…of incredible size and weight, and thrown over the shoulder exactly like the Roman toga. Wolves’ and rams’ heads as large as life, cast in gold, were suspended like round bills, and rusted in blood…The large drums supported on the head of one man, and beaten by two others, were braced around with the thigh bones of their enemies, and ornamented with their skulls…Finely grown girls stood behind the chairs of some, with silver basins. Their stools (of the most laborious carved work, and generally with two large bells attached to them) were conspicuously placed on the heads of favourites…The prolonged flourishes of the horns, a deafening tumult of drums, and the fuller concert of the intervals, announced that we were approaching the king…the king’s four linguists were encircled by a splendor inferior to none, and their peculiar insignia, gold canes, were elevated in all directions, tied in bundles like fasces. A delay of several minutes whilst we severally approached to receive the king’s hand afforded to us a thorough view of h im; his deportment first excited my attention: native dignity in princes we are pleased to call barbarous was a curious spectacle; his manners were majestic, yet courteous;…he wore a fillet of aggrey beads round his temples, …over his right shoulder a red, silk cord, suspending three sapphires cased in gold; his bracelets were the richest mixture of beads and gold and his fingers were covered with rings; his cloth was of a dark green silk.’
TE Bowditch, ‘Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantie’. London, 1819

The paramount chief of that area was a tall, heavy shouldered man, with oiled, dark brown skin and the bearing that went with a long ancestry of chiefs and nobles among the local tribes. He had been enstooled in his paramountcy-that is to say, enthroned-in a large and splendid ceremony just two years before, not long after he had returned from a graduate course in economics at Oxford. He had taken a very ordinary degree from the same university ten years before, spending much of his time and his uncle’s money in the pursuits well suited to West african princes at British places of higher learning in that period. Which means that he was alternatively lionized and patronized. Three years at Oxford, the selective attentions of white women, and the practiced indignities of old colonial hands, stockbrokers’ sons and English landladies had refined an inherited gift for cocking a weather eye and divining a middle way.
His tribe had never been powerful, even though over the centuries it had often patrolled a large area. Its lands lay between the powerful Fante chiefdoms of the coasts and the dominating Ashanti kingdom to the north. Its destiny was to be a buffer zone, and despite all its care it had often enough paid the price. Though the main sources of slaves for the foreign trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had been further to the north and east, from time to time this tribe had been raided, when supplies elsewhere were short. At other times, his fathers had had to work diligently to avoid disaster. To spot a dicey situation, to fashion protective if sometimes shifty compromises, came naturally enough to the paramount chief.
When Nkrumah’s independence movement had gathered force and begun to isolated the traditional chiefs and conservative wealthy cocoa farmers, he was one of the few chiefs who had kept foot in both camps. Kwame Nkrumah, the Osagyefo, the Redeemer, had been a young lad from a village not so many miles to the south, near the mouth of the Tano River, who had gone off to the United States and come back to lead the new men chanting independence.
He had come to the district at the head of a motley but overwhelming party of the young, the market women, town workers and the village poor. And the now paramount chief, then merely one of several chiefs, had made sure that he was welcome. Favours followed. The paramount chief had been selected for special tasks as a mediator in the councils of the chiefs and in heading off trouble with factions among the Ashanti, with whom he was on good terms but who were the principal tribal opponents of the new regime. He received his rewards. The nine-month course which he had completed at Oxford, with trimmings to taste, was one of them. And, when he returned, the paramountcy.

Another was the bridge. The timber company which had made the contract, and financed it, was part of a large European conglomerate with diverse interests throughout West Africa. There were many areas in western Ghana covered with tall trees and thick jungle, but companies with the necessary means of bulldozers and machinery and staff and cash to run a logging operation were scarce. For several years the paramount chief had used his influence in the political councils and the public service to have the timber company pointed towards his tribal lands, rather than those of other tribes.
The company itself had received little hint of his direct personal interest and had found the chief stiffly dignified and uncompromising whenever they had had negotiations. In the end, before permission could be obtained for their forestry lease, they had been obliged to agree to build the bridge. It was to be a proper, concrete bridge, not just one made of logs, and it was to be properly designed by an engineer (me, as it turned out). It was to have a pedestrian footway, in addition to the wide one-vehicle lane for timber trucks, to allow people unimpeded passage across the Tano river. There was to be no such bridge for many miles.
To some extent this was simply a gesture by the company, as they would need a robust structure to exploit the several thousand acres of their lease across the river. But they would have preferred to build it much more cheaply, and not be bound in humiliating agreement with an obstinate, up-country chief.
Negotiation with the Asantehene, King of the Ashanti, was something they could understand, carried on with the autocratic ritual and formality of an eighteenth century European court. Dealing with the Asantehene, even the paler version, subdued by the Republic, who now sat in the castle at Kumasi, was one thing; with these conniving country nobodies it was quite another, and the company didn’t like it. Not so long ago it would all have been settled by a bribe to a favorite of the Asantehene, or by some well-placed pressure upon the British District Officer in charge of the area, anxious for his district’s exports.
But to the paramount chief it was a very good deal indeed, the sort that he liked, where everybody, himself especially, won. The company was getting its timber lease and a long flow of profits. The national government was getting handsome royalties, and later there would follow taxes. The people of the area were getting a way across the Tano, open even in the monsoon when the river was a roaring torrent, to the rich hunting and the good land on the other side, and to the large towns further up the road. He, himself, had already received a big ‘dash’, a new Mercedes saloon, and could expect further benefits in the future.
And everybody was getting the good, concrete bridge, symbol of common-sense and mutual support and the modern spirit, solid witness ot the wisdom and good sense of them all, whom it would celebrate for many years to all who knew the story.
And now this foolish Swiss had stirred up the priests and their attendants. The people were anxious. The chief’s rivals were already loose, fomenting fear of foreigners and foreign ways. The timber company might be frightened off.

‘Among many of the peoples of West Africa-and, for that matter, many other parts of Africa, especially in the forests-the closest social bonds lay not within the paternal family, between father and child, but between uncle or aunt and nephew and niece. Descent passed in the female line, Obligations of loyalty, trust, support, affection bound brother and sister. The popular explanation was that one can be sure that one’s sister’s children are of your blood, but can you be sure of your wife’s? When a chief’s mother had died, it was his sister, not his wife, who became the Queen Mother, or, as we would say, the First Lady. This connection was especially strong among families of the royal. It’s history cast a along shadow.
The Pharaonic state was bureaucratic, not feudal…its great title holders were officials, not hereditary territorial magnates…not perhaps inevitably, but not by accident either…a radical growth of the institution produced a corresponding development…in the shape of the god-king, paying the highest honor to his god-bearing mother, and practising royal incest with his potentially god-bearing sister…’
Roland Oliver, ‘The African Experience’. London, 1993

The news had been brought to the paramount chief in mid-afternoon by his linguist Among most of the tribes of the rain-forest running across West Africa the custom was that the chief could not be addressed directly, but only through an official known as the linguist, or okyeami, who provided the channel to and from the royal ears and mouth. The linguist was appointed by the chief, and in turn appointed retainers. The post of linguist was not hereditary. In this one powerful position were combined the two staff, private secretary and press secretary, of which modern potentates feel the need. But other functions were also often joined in this person-confidant, strategist, procurer, fixer.
The paramount chief and the linguist talked long about the crisis in the project on which they had both worked so hard. Sometimes silence fell between them. Sometimes they spoke in rapid exchanges. After one such burst, the linguist went to one of the larger huts and soon returned with a robust woman of about forty, wearing a bright turban and wrapped about in a flower, purple, cotton-print cloth. She was the paramount chief’s younger sister. She sat down with the two men and listened without response, head down, serious, intent, to her brother’s words, and then to the slow sentences of the linguist, heavy with respect. About an hour or so before dark would fall, she and the linguist left.

As he later explained to me about the events of that afternoon and the night, Schultz, after he had sent the telegrams, was sitting on the veranda of his prefabricated hut drinking beer as the light was fading. The first flush of anger, fear and frustration had subsided. He was now puzzling over what to do, how to respond to the heavy demands the priests had made upon him. Absorbed in his thoughts, his cigarettes and his beer, he felt the still, lonely evening settle around him. The soft noises of the steward preparing the meal in the lean-to kitchen, and the subdued by cheerful hum form the village over the hill were reassuring presences.
He did not notice for some time the two girls, quietly tittering, under trees at the edge of the clearing. They had been bathing in the river below. Their hair was still wet and their body cloths were still damp. He had not been long enough in the country to be sure whether what finally stirred his attention were childish giggles coming from embarrassed teenagers, or more mature signals of invitation. But in either case he had no wish to become worse entangled, this time over women. He stood up and made a gesture of dismissal, calling out “Go away, go away” in English, and went inside.
But by the time the dark fall of night had shut out the world beyond, and the hut had become a small glowing center, and he was halfway through his meal and sipping another beer, the two girls had appeared again, this time on his veranda. They were scuffling lightly and grinning wide, white smiles around the door. The soft light from the only kerosene mantle lamp highlighted the blue sheen of foreheads, the shoulders finely sculpted from the daily pounding of the fufu, the cassava meal which was staple food, and the gleam of smiling eyes.
He called out again for them to go away, but less firmly. A little later, he consulted his steward who had long experience of Europeans. The old man assured him there was no danger from the local people if he allowed the young females in his house. They might even think it was a gesture of reconciliation. Schultz told him to ask the by now dancing, humming girls to enter.
They sat on the floor, and on the chairs and table, looked at his cups and fingered his shirt, laughed at his razor and shaving soap, played ball with his just washed clothes which the steward had laid out on his bed. The older, bigger one jumped up and down on the bed and patted the sheet beside her, laughing and joking with her sister as she did.
The faint light from the lamp in the other room shone on her dark arms and breasts from which the cloth had dropped. As he stood beside the bed, arms akimbo, wondering what to do, she took hold of him with one hand and with the other undid his belt. As he fell upon her, the younger one stroked his back from behind. Through the night he played the games of the sexual children who had taken possession of his bed.

When he awoke in the full light of morning he was anxious and confused. His memories of the night were a tangle, a sweet tangle. Those of the previous day, of his anger, fear and frustration, were shadowed by the shapes of the night. The first had gone before first light, one slipping out from beside him on the narrow bed, the other from the mat on the floor where she had finally fallen asleep. They left on his pillow one of the flowers that had adorned their hair when they arrived.
He was drinking coffee when the small group of men arrived at the edge of the clearing. One of them called out to the steward in the local language.
“Master, these men come to make palaver about the bridge.”
Three of the men were barefoot, clad in cloth wrapped around the waist. The fourth, who was tall and strode impressively, wore sandals, had a patterned, handwoven silk cloth draped across one shoulder in toga fashion, and carried a long, carved stave. On its top, painted in shining gold, were two figures. One was of a man, a prisoner, kneeling and bound in chains. His head was pulled back from behind by the left hand of the other figure, an executioner, who, in his right hand, flourished a long, golden knife.
“This man speaks for the chief,” the steward said.
Schultz’s anxieties returned. The events of the night still formed around him a kind of touchable, a transgressive haze. The images of the men before him, even of the gold monstrosity on the top of the staff, were shot across with moving hands, hard nipples and full lips. His thoughts were slowed by the numbnesses of pleasure. But his fears were groundless.

Through the steward the lingust explained the situation in the local language(he could speak passable English, I later discovered, but would not lose face by using it in negotiations). The paramount chief had heard of the dispute the previous day. He was upset that the contractor had been insulted by the priests-”ignorant, foolish people”, the linguist said in anger. The local people were simple and easily stirred, it was important not to offend them.
The paramount chief had intervened on the contractor’s behalf and the priests had agreed that only two-thirds of the amount of whisky and gin they had at first demanded would now be necessary for the offerings and libations. The paramount chief, the linguist explained, was sorry the foreman and his employers had been troubled, but these were simple people, he repeated, and if their small worries were now attended to the paramount chief assured him there would be no more.
He stressed the gracious interest the paramount chief had taken in the unwitting embarrassment to the gods which Schultz had innocently provoked, the gullibility of the people, the anger of the priests, the importance of the bridge, the high expectations the chief had already formed of his company, and, from several reports he had received , of him, Schultz, personally. There was no mention of the girls in the night.

So it was all quickly fixed, and the linguist and his attendants had left the clearing before thirty minutes had gone. I arrived in early afternoon to find bustling preparations for the ceremonies next morning already begun. There was drumming in the village and it continued throughout the night. There were many comings and goings at Schultz’s camp. In mid afternoon two local government councillors and a member of the national parliament for the district turned up in a large American car.
These were great local dignitaries it seemed to Schultz, but were, in fact, to the local people, men of much lower status than the paramount chief and his linguist. Dressed in shirts and well groomed trousers, speaking good English, they explained how easily such misunderstandings as yesterday’s could arise. They, of course, didn’t believe in all the juju but all the farmers and v illage people around did.
“Like children,” the member of parliament said, laughing loudly with his head thrown back, showing red betel nut stains on his teeth, slapping his thigh with one huge hand and with the other emptying the last of yet another bottle of beer down his throat. “Like children”, repeated a councillor, and another round of laughter echoed, and the others joined in and slapped their thighs and quaffed their beer, until at last both Schultz and I, too, laughed uproariously and drank our beer and looked as though we might even slap our thighs.
The light was failing and the frogs and cicadas struck up, the cocoa trees and the banana fronds and the tall forest trees turned black, the lamps flickered in the village, and the drumming, on and on, on and on, went into the night.

Not long after dawn next day the first of hundreds of people had gathered in the clearing above the bridge site. Two priests and two priestesses had spent the night there, their faces and bodies covered with the white powdered clay which, in the Ghanaian forests, is the incense of holiness. Two groups of drummers, using chest-high male and female drums made of hollowed tree trunks with tightly stretched skins across one end, had commenced a low insistent beat.
The paramount chief arrived some time later in his Mercedes, a clutch of councillors in a pickup, the member of Parliament turned up in his Ford. The chief, led by the linguist with his golden staff of office, and shaded by a brilliant gold umbrella held high over him by a stolid attendant, walked down the hilly slope towards the river and sat on a chair near the drummers.
Soon, without announcement, as though on impulse, the priests and priestesses commenced to dance, slow, shuffling, awkward movements of the hips, guttural voices rising and falling in long, drawn-out wails. As they moved their assistants danced with them, sprinkling them with dust and white chalk, poking each other obscenely, treading the steps for a while and then retiring to let another take the place. For several hours the drumming and dancing rolled monotonously, mesmerically, the crowd gelled, the heat and steam of the morning rose, amnesia descended. One by one the dancers wandered off.
Only an old priestess was left, she who spoke for the god of the river, Taakora, himself. The beat of the drums had slowly risen. The drummers were covered in sweat, their shoulders and eyes and legs when twitching. The old, holy crone, her soiled white cloth around her waist, black, wizened face covered with white clay streaked with sweat, flat bags of breazts flapping against her rib-cage, shuffled and flailed around in a circle. Her red eyes rolled, alternately she hissed and spat low sounds or blew out lips in explosive circles. Around and around the drums were volleying.

She stopped and came over to where ‘the official party’ was standing. Starting with the paramount chief she threw white chalk over him, much as priests in Christian churches cast the sanctifying smoke from the censor over the faithful. She moved along the line, hissing as she went, spraying each face with dust, fixing each one with inflamed, red and rolling eyes which gleamed in a fierce glare, and yet focused catatonically inwards.
When she reached Schultz she stopped again. The drums stopped. She walked slowly around him several times, placing each old foot carefully after the other on the damp mud bank. She swayed thin hips, hissing and breathing, stopping sometimes to look at his eyes and to touch him, pulling her hand away as though touching red-hot metal. She stopped again, looking into his pale, nervous eyes with her red, ferocious ones.
The silence was long, no-one moved, standing next to him I could feel him stiffen. She slowly reached out her hand, took some of the white dust from a pottery bowl held by an assistant, gave a cry and a leap and threw it into his face in a light cloud. The drums rang out loudly again, she circled Schultz in that cramped, menacing shuffle, and launched over him great, white, cleansing clouds of benediction.
When she came to me she stopped again, and the drums too, and she walked, not shuffled, around me once, returning to look me in the eyes.. I had not realised before how controlled, baleful, malevolent were those black eyes in their red mesh of veins. She gave one last hiss, stamped her feet, shook her head angrily, threw some dust on the ground and moved away. No blessing for me, apparently, the latecomer, the originator of the bridge, not vouchsafed even the grudging acceptance of which Schultz, the sinner, but now a temporary member of the tribe, had been thought worthy.
As if on a signal the crowd, by now in hundreds, moved towards the river, caught in the one emotion. First the priests and priestesses, then the dozens of attendants and the drummers. Then the paramount chief, splendid in the red and green and gold silks of his kente toga, a blue embroidered skull-cap on his head, sheltered by the golden umbrella held above him by an attendant. Next the linguist and his wooden staff with gilded death on its top. Then Schultz and I and a representative of the timber company, and the politicians. Then the masses of local people and their children, in bright cloths and the women in coloured turbans, skins freshly oiled for the occasion now streaked with sweat and dust. They fanned down in a curve from the slope of the clearing to near the site of the bridge.
The priests had stopped beside the tree trunk Schultz had killed-killed, I write, and killed it was, where it sprawled in the fast, brown waters of the river. The drums were silent now and in the hush the people gathered close beneath the burning midday sun. Quiet. The uneasy shuffle of feet and the soft rush of the river.
The priestesses’ attendants dragged from the shade of the trees two large male goats, one brown, speckled with black, the other completely white. I had not seen them before. No doubt they had been tethered quietly all the time, but in the heated moment it seemed as though they had been spirited into place.
The old priestess came forward once more, muttering and growling, pulling the ears of one goat, pushing the rump of the other, scattering white clouds around her as she went, in and out, between and around the two goats. Then with another mad cry she grabbed the white goat and dragged it towards the river.

When I thought of it later, trying to remember how it happened, it scarcely seemed to have occurred in time at all. Two of the attendants, the two who had done most of the dancing with the old woman, rushed forward, taking the goat from her, almost knocking her over as she tottered off. The goat was hauled a few feet out along the dead tree. A long knife shone and the throat was slit in a stroke. A sharp hiss from the crowd. The paramount chief beside me stood impassive. In front of him the linguist, over whose shoulder I was looking, slowly revolved his staff between his fingers. The sun glinted from the golden figures of the kneeling prisoner and erect executioner as they turned.
The red blood spurted over the tree trunk and into the water. Still twitching in chilling death, the goat was thrown into the brown stream. The gore pulsed from its neck, staining the water as it splashed. A sacrifice to the gods of the river, it was to be carried away by the river. The gods of the place, the people hoped, would go with it, in peace and satisfaction, leaving space for the bridge to be built.
But they wouldn’t go. An eddy caught the body still plunging and kicking in its death throes, and brought it back again. Again it came around, and again, and then the kicking carcass turned, slowly moving out into the center of the stream where the current rushed, drifted downstream a little and, at first uncertainly and then faster, swung back again towards the shore.
The many lips which a few seconds previously had opened with hisses dropped apart in gasps, and a single, stifled gasp rose above the stiffened gathering. Once more the body circled slowly out into midstream, paused shakily on the fringe of the current, and traced its ghostly arc back to the starting point like a spirit in thrall. Breathing had stopped. The gasp was silently held. The old priestess stopped her growling and, bent forward on one leg, her hands crushing white clay between her fingers, she gazed in furious concentration, unmoving, joined with her eye’s beam to the circling corpse.
It turned again to the center of the river and the running current. Poised in midstream, in frozen seconds it inched a few feet downstream, backwards, forwards, still held in the circling eddy, and then broke free and plunged with the rushing water around the river bend. The white body, leaving a wash of bloody rust behind, was gone.
Hundreds of mouths exhaled in a swoosh. The drummer of the male drum beat it loudly, heavily, bang bang bang. I had watched the paramount chief through the last few minutes? hours? seconds? His face had stayed calm throughout. But the cheeks paled beneath their brown, the lips were strained and set as the grey shape circled in the water like a lost soul. Turning, he saw me watching and the face opened in a wide and condescending smile.
“The people will be happy now,” he said.

‘The blacks speak much of spirits appearing to them, and believe these are the souls of deceased persons, but they have little or no apprehension of a future state-they rather think that the soul, after death, keeps haunt about the body, and is latent in, or near its repository; and it must be grounded upon this imagination, that they have a custom of setting pots and basins, and other such furniture and utensils, at the graves of their kindred.
That which in some books of voyages is said, of the negroes of Guinea sacrificing to the devil, may have some truth in it; but nothing of that, literally speaking, is ever practised in any part of the Gold Coast, as I could ever learn by clear information. The blacks at Cape Coast are the very opposite of this, seeming rather to hold him in defiance.’
Thompson, An Account of Two Missionary Voyages, ibid.
A BRIDGE IN WEST AFRICA
A Memoir
by
Gavan McDonell

c6600 words
A BRIDGE IN WEST AFRICA
A memoir
by
Gavan McDonell

We had been staying for a few days at the old abbey in Connemara in the west of Ireland, where the light bursts out of the green hills and the sea dies in a silver shroud of an afternoon when the sun sets beyond Arran. Knowing that we were going on a picnic one of the nuns suggested we take with us a young girl student there whose father was a chief at Bathurst in the Gambia on the West African coast. She was tall and slim and very black, but she had the manner of the demurely convent bred, and the soft stroke of a Connemara accent.
It was mid-summer, and all the clocks had been advanced for daylight saving time. Except in the Abbey where God’s time was not to be interfered with. Carried away with the treat of the afternoon’s holiday with us, the freedom of the hills and meadows, and telling stories of her home, she had let the hours slip by, until she suddenly gave a start, breaking into the dreams of her world, and said in the western brogue,”And now, could you be tellin’ me, what time would it be back in the Abbey?”
Worlds away, and fairy castles, and leprechauns, and the black-robed, gliding nuns, and the toll of the evening bells.

As it turned out a year or so later, Africa began for me in 1958 at Bathurst, with the moist breeze at sunset, opulent hibiscus and fragrance laden frangipani, the stretched dark slab of the Atlantic horizon at dawn, long-gowned servants padding through the mud-walled guest-house, appearing noiselessly in the middle of the room, smiling, always smiling. And it ended, years later, much as it began, not at Bathurst but with the same ease of light, of air, the riffle of a drum, the enigmas of the smiles.
But not long after Bathurst came Accra, the capital of the then new nation of Ghana. Only a year before that broad West African expanse of beaches, rain forest, orchard bush and desert had been known for centuries as the Gold Coast, land of the Ga people, the Akan, the Fante, the Ashanti, the Hausa and the secretive folk of the savannah.

‘Every Sunday they make an offering to Taberah of cankee, which is their bread, mixing it with palm oil. This is a stated custom, but the same is performed occasionally at other times. In special cases, as of some great distress by sickness or want of rains, and apprehension by famine, they sacrifice a sheep or goat; and when the sea is tempestuous for several days together, that they can catch no fish, this they look upon as token of their idol’s displeasure. The victim being killed, and cut in pieces, some part of it is thrown upon the rock, which is interpreted to be eaten by Taberah, because it is devoured, as though by some great birds that hover there; and the other parts of the flesh the people dress for their own eating, and then sit around, and there feast upon it.’
Thomas Thompson, An Account of Two Missionary Voyages, London, 1758.

In the market at Accra, a grass-roofed stall, the table covered two feet high with skulls. Dog skulls, goat skulls, snake skulls, bird skulls. Packets of herbs. Rolled in newspaper, and leaves. Powders and berries. Feathers of bright birds in armlets and amulets. Duiker bones and chicken bones. Unspeakable objects, but commonplace, charred. Seared with imaginings. In the middle of the pile a round, brown face with gleaming eye, manic, weaving around, above and among the skulls, the shells, the feathers, casseroled in the smell of herbs and rotting flesh. This was the juju stall, and its vendor. Drums beat in the morning air.
An embarrassed laugh as the white man approached. The sounds of scurrying from the hut behind-a rat, a person, a spirit. The women of the market, wrapped large in their long cloths printed in the colors of the land, greens and browns and reds, big-breasted under white blouses, swaying against the table, fat muscled arms and long molded fingers turning over the talismans of the living spirits around us. As if in protection a tall Fulani man touched with one hand the amulet at this neck containing a fragment from the Koran and with the other stroked up and down, back and forth, a dried brown skull on the bench. The one God fortified with the many.
Dust rose, scattered by the passersby on their way to the meat and fish and cassava and vegetables. Women at the cloth stalls, hung with English and Dutch and Indian cottons in the designs and fashions favored by the Ghanaians, laughed and cackled and flirted with their buyers and assistants, and suckled their babies as they went.
And the mad eye at the juju stall wove in and out, glowing among the dust and bones, in and out of the spotlight of the sun. Lusts, joys, fears, enticements shone out from the eye darting there among the shades. And beneath it all the drums, the rush of intoxication, of desire and love, of rage and madness, close, close.

I went one evening to a dinner party given by a senior English army officer in the military cantonments. During the short twilight drinks were served in the garden by servants in stiff white shirts and long white trousers. The talk was of the current preoccupations-the battles between Nkrumah, the first prime minister of an independent Ghana and the traditional chiefs, the price of cocoa, the lover knifed at a nearby door, de Gaulle’s ambitions in North Africa, two thousand miles away across the Sahara but for Ghana a close neighbor.
But at dinner, in the wine, the four Ghanaian guests, at ease as commissioned ranks and high civil servants and lawyers could be among their European colleagues, spoke of things closer to hand. Two were in the army, one a senior diplomat, one from the Treasury, all of them from Oxford, or Cambridge or Sandhurst, traveled, cosmopolitan, but still not far from the village. Each told stories of the powers, of leaves fluttering on still nights in wild moonlight dances, alternately soaring or softly sibilant. Of death done by ghostly proxy. Of the sacrifice of children at the yam festivals, beheaded without cry or tremor, swaying on their mother’s backs as they walked beside the surf. Of the access of strength, or the conferring of oblivion, upon the great and the powerful. Not long after I met some of the practitioners.

Gerhard Schultz, the contractor’s foreman for the construction of the bridge I had designed across the Tano river, in the rain forests of western Ghana, had only been six weeks in the country. He was unfamiliar with the workings of the clause in all such contracts requiring that local religious customs be observed. This clause stipulated that the contractor should pay the costs of any such observances which were deemed necessary by the local priests or priestesses to smooth the path of the construction through the dwellings of any resident gods.
Late one afternoon I returned home to find awaiting me a telegram from Schultz saying that the work was delayed because of exorbitant demands by the priests. He urged me to go to negotiate for him. I left that night late, driving in the cool and relative safety of darkness when the roads were free of the enthusiastic, erratic drivers of the many mammy-wagons. I arrived at the site about midday.

Schultz had awoken that morning tired, and the events of the previous day we re already obscure in this memory. He had had a tree felled where the bridge was to be built. The local laborers had objected but-this was his first job in Africa-he had overruled them, even the gray-headed, sober headman. The dust from the tree’s fall had scarcely settled before a throng of local people had appeared in the clearing on the river bank where the construction sheds and equipment had been set up. One of the men, with a gold-painted staff and crooked , betel-stained teeth, and one of the women, withered and skinny with flat, scrawny breasts and a dirty, white cloth draped around her waist, separated themselves from the rest and gesticulated and snarled at Schultz.
He did not expect this frontal assault, so soon after his arrival, in what now seemed a strange and hostile land, full of the new political liberties, simply because he had cut down a tree. If this was what could happen over one tree, would the bridge ever be built. But he soon learnt: four gods had been in residence near the bridge site and their peace and dignity had been ruptured by the sacrilegious destruction of the tree. The preparations for construction had begun before any offerings had been made to them or requests to move had been transmitted through their agents, the priests of the area.
In particular Taakora, the god of the holy river Tano, the supreme god on earth of the Akan people, from whom came Nkrumah himself, had been especially disturbed and would require great propitiation. In addition the spot chosen for the bridge was more than usually venerated for there lived nearby four gods watching over not only that vicinity but also long reaches of the river.
The man and the woman snarling at Schultz were priest and priestess. Through the heat and hubbub Schultz learnt that customary religious observances required that, before any building work was commenced, offerings must be made and libations poured to the gods. Further libations would be required at various times while the bridge was being built. No further work was to be allowed until full reparation had been made for the transgressions already committed, libation had been completed and the gods placated. For the due ceremonies to proceed five hundred bottles of gin and six cases of Scotch whisky would be required for use in the rituals and for distribution among the priests and their attendants.
The foreman was angered and afraid. He was afraid because he was the only white man within miles and his offense was great. He knew that the thick green forests around, the dark caverns of vines and bushes, gloomy even in the midday sun, would cover his body without trace. He was afraid, too, of his employers, far away in Switzerland, of their annoyance at the delay and the added costs of the required tribute.
And he was angry at his loss of face, his ignorance and the price he was expected to pay for it all. Five hundred bottles of gin and six cases of whisky to assuage five imaginary gods! The profits would be gone. They had quoted low on the job, hoping to find favour in the eyes of the timber company who were giving the bridge to the local community, and, of course, to allow them to export logs from the rich surrounding forests.
He remonstrated for a while, but he knew the sad-eyed local headman was not translating his words with conviction. He threw his hands up, nodded to the headman, and walked to his pickup. The crowd that had gathered moved slowly, grudgingly, aside. Back at his camp near the town, he thought for a while, drank another beer, and then sent telegrams to his head office and to me.

”The king’s messengers, with gold breast plates, made way for us, and we commenced our round…The caboceers, as did their superior captains and attendants, wore Ashantie clothes, of extravagant price, made from the costly foreign silks…of incredible size and weight, and thrown over the shoulder exactly like the Roman toga. Wolves’ and rams’ heads as large as life, cast in gold, were suspended like round bills, and rusted in blood…The large drums supported on the head of one man, and beaten by two others, were braced around with the thigh bones of their enemies, and ornamented with their skulls…Finely grown girls stood behind the chairs of some, with silver basins. Their stools (of the most laborious carved work, and generally with two large bells attached to them) were conspicuously placed on the heads of favourites…The prolonged flourishes of the horns, a deafening tumult of drums, and the fuller concert of the intervals, announced that we were approaching the king…the king’s four linguists were encircled by a splendor inferior to none, and their peculiar insignia, gold canes, were elevated in all directions, tied in bundles like fasces. A delay of several minutes whilst we severally approached to receive the king’s hand afforded to us a thorough view of h im; his deportment first excited my attention: native dignity in princes we are pleased to call barbarous was a curious spectacle; his manners were majestic, yet courteous;…he wore a fillet of aggrey beads round his temples, …over his right shoulder a red, silk cord, suspending three sapphires cased in gold; his bracelets were the richest mixture of beads and gold and his fingers were covered with rings; his cloth was of a dark green silk.’
TE Bowditch, ‘Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantie’. London, 1819

The paramount chief of that area was a tall, heavy shouldered man, with oiled, dark brown skin and the bearing that went with a long ancestry of chiefs and nobles among the local tribes. He had been enstooled in his paramountcy-that is to say, enthroned-in a large and splendid ceremony just two years before, not long after he had returned from a graduate course in economics at Oxford. He had taken a very ordinary degree from the same university ten years before, spending much of his time and his uncle’s money in the pursuits well suited to West african princes at British places of higher learning in that period. Which means that he was alternatively lionized and patronized. Three years at Oxford, the selective attentions of white women, and the practiced indignities of old colonial hands, stockbrokers’ sons and English landladies had refined an inherited gift for cocking a weather eye and divining a middle way.
His tribe had never been powerful, even though over the centuries it had often patrolled a large area. Its lands lay between the powerful Fante chiefdoms of the coasts and the dominating Ashanti kingdom to the north. Its destiny was to be a buffer zone, and despite all its care it had often enough paid the price. Though the main sources of slaves for the foreign trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had been further to the north and east, from time to time this tribe had been raided, when supplies elsewhere were short. At other times, his fathers had had to work diligently to avoid disaster. To spot a dicey situation, to fashion protective if sometimes shifty compromises, came naturally enough to the paramount chief.
When Nkrumah’s independence movement had gathered force and begun to isolated the traditional chiefs and conservative wealthy cocoa farmers, he was one of the few chiefs who had kept foot in both camps. Kwame Nkrumah, the Osagyefo, the Redeemer, had been a young lad from a village not so many miles to the south, near the mouth of the Tano River, who had gone off to the United States and come back to lead the new men chanting independence.
He had come to the district at the head of a motley but overwhelming party of the young, the market women, town workers and the village poor. And the now paramount chief, then merely one of several chiefs, had made sure that he was welcome. Favours followed. The paramount chief had been selected for special tasks as a mediator in the councils of the chiefs and in heading off trouble with factions among the Ashanti, with whom he was on good terms but who were the principal tribal opponents of the new regime. He received his rewards. The nine-month course which he had completed at Oxford, with trimmings to taste, was one of them. And, when he returned, the paramountcy.

Another was the bridge. The timber company which had made the contract, and financed it, was part of a large European conglomerate with diverse interests throughout West Africa. There were many areas in western Ghana covered with tall trees and thick jungle, but companies with the necessary means of bulldozers and machinery and staff and cash to run a logging operation were scarce. For several years the paramount chief had used his influence in the political councils and the public service to have the timber company pointed towards his tribal lands, rather than those of other tribes.
The company itself had received little hint of his direct personal interest and had found the chief stiffly dignified and uncompromising whenever they had had negotiations. In the end, before permission could be obtained for their forestry lease, they had been obliged to agree to build the bridge. It was to be a proper, concrete bridge, not just one made of logs, and it was to be properly designed by an engineer (me, as it turned out). It was to have a pedestrian footway, in addition to the wide one-vehicle lane for timber trucks, to allow people unimpeded passage across the Tano river. There was to be no such bridge for many miles.
To some extent this was simply a gesture by the company, as they would need a robust structure to exploit the several thousand acres of their lease across the river. But they would have preferred to build it much more cheaply, and not be bound in humiliating agreement with an obstinate, up-country chief.
Negotiation with the Asantehene, King of the Ashanti, was something they could understand, carried on with the autocratic ritual and formality of an eighteenth century European court. Dealing with the Asantehene, even the paler version, subdued by the Republic, who now sat in the castle at Kumasi, was one thing; with these conniving country nobodies it was quite another, and the company didn’t like it. Not so long ago it would all have been settled by a bribe to a favorite of the Asantehene, or by some well-placed pressure upon the British District Officer in charge of the area, anxious for his district’s exports.
But to the paramount chief it was a very good deal indeed, the sort that he liked, where everybody, himself especially, won. The company was getting its timber lease and a long flow of profits. The national government was getting handsome royalties, and later there would follow taxes. The people of the area were getting a way across the Tano, open even in the monsoon when the river was a roaring torrent, to the rich hunting and the good land on the other side, and to the large towns further up the road. He, himself, had already received a big ‘dash’, a new Mercedes saloon, and could expect further benefits in the future.
And everybody was getting the good, concrete bridge, symbol of common-sense and mutual support and the modern spirit, solid witness ot the wisdom and good sense of them all, whom it would celebrate for many years to all who knew the story.
And now this foolish Swiss had stirred up the priests and their attendants. The people were anxious. The chief’s rivals were already loose, fomenting fear of foreigners and foreign ways. The timber company might be frightened off.

‘Among many of the peoples of West Africa-and, for that matter, many other parts of Africa, especially in the forests-the closest social bonds lay not within the paternal family, between father and child, but between uncle or aunt and nephew and niece. Descent passed in the female line, Obligations of loyalty, trust, support, affection bound brother and sister. The popular explanation was that one can be sure that one’s sister’s children are of your blood, but can you be sure of your wife’s? When a chief’s mother had died, it was his sister, not his wife, who became the Queen Mother, or, as we would say, the First Lady. This connection was especially strong among families of the royal. It’s history cast a along shadow.
The Pharaonic state was bureaucratic, not feudal…its great title holders were officials, not hereditary territorial magnates…not perhaps inevitably, but not by accident either…a radical growth of the institution produced a corresponding development…in the shape of the god-king, paying the highest honor to his god-bearing mother, and practising royal incest with his potentially god-bearing sister…’
Roland Oliver, ‘The African Experience’. London, 1993

The news had been brought to the paramount chief in mid-afternoon by his linguist Among most of the tribes of the rain-forest running across West Africa the custom was that the chief could not be addressed directly, but only through an official known as the linguist, or okyeami, who provided the channel to and from the royal ears and mouth. The linguist was appointed by the chief, and in turn appointed retainers. The post of linguist was not hereditary. In this one powerful position were combined the two staff, private secretary and press secretary, of which modern potentates feel the need. But other functions were also often joined in this person-confidant, strategist, procurer, fixer.
The paramount chief and the linguist talked long about the crisis in the project on which they had both worked so hard. Sometimes silence fell between them. Sometimes they spoke in rapid exchanges. After one such burst, the linguist went to one of the larger huts and soon returned with a robust woman of about forty, wearing a bright turban and wrapped about in a flower, purple, cotton-print cloth. She was the paramount chief’s younger sister. She sat down with the two men and listened without response, head down, serious, intent, to her brother’s words, and then to the slow sentences of the linguist, heavy with respect. About an hour or so before dark would fall, she and the linguist left.

As he later explained to me about the events of that afternoon and the night, Schultz, after he had sent the telegrams, was sitting on the veranda of his prefabricated hut drinking beer as the light was fading. The first flush of anger, fear and frustration had subsided. He was now puzzling over what to do, how to respond to the heavy demands the priests had made upon him. Absorbed in his thoughts, his cigarettes and his beer, he felt the still, lonely evening settle around him. The soft noises of the steward preparing the meal in the lean-to kitchen, and the subdued by cheerful hum form the village over the hill were reassuring presences.
He did not notice for some time the two girls, quietly tittering, under trees at the edge of the clearing. They had been bathing in the river below. Their hair was still wet and their body cloths were still damp. He had not been long enough in the country to be sure whether what finally stirred his attention were childish giggles coming from embarrassed teenagers, or more mature signals of invitation. But in either case he had no wish to become worse entangled, this time over women. He stood up and made a gesture of dismissal, calling out “Go away, go away” in English, and went inside.
But by the time the dark fall of night had shut out the world beyond, and the hut had become a small glowing center, and he was halfway through his meal and sipping another beer, the two girls had appeared again, this time on his veranda. They were scuffling lightly and grinning wide, white smiles around the door. The soft light from the only kerosene mantle lamp highlighted the blue sheen of foreheads, the shoulders finely sculpted from the daily pounding of the fufu, the cassava meal which was staple food, and the gleam of smiling eyes.
He called out again for them to go away, but less firmly. A little later, he consulted his steward who had long experience of Europeans. The old man assured him there was no danger from the local people if he allowed the young females in his house. They might even think it was a gesture of reconciliation. Schultz told him to ask the by now dancing, humming girls to enter.
They sat on the floor, and on the chairs and table, looked at his cups and fingered his shirt, laughed at his razor and shaving soap, played ball with his just washed clothes which the steward had laid out on his bed. The older, bigger one jumped up and down on the bed and patted the sheet beside her, laughing and joking with her sister as she did.
The faint light from the lamp in the other room shone on her dark arms and breasts from which the cloth had dropped. As he stood beside the bed, arms akimbo, wondering what to do, she took hold of him with one hand and with the other undid his belt. As he fell upon her, the younger one stroked his back from behind. Through the night he played the games of the sexual children who had taken possession of his bed.

When he awoke in the full light of morning he was anxious and confused. His memories of the night were a tangle, a sweet tangle. Those of the previous day, of his anger, fear and frustration, were shadowed by the shapes of the night. The first had gone before first light, one slipping out from beside him on the narrow bed, the other from the mat on the floor where she had finally fallen asleep. They left on his pillow one of the flowers that had adorned their hair when they arrived.
He was drinking coffee when the small group of men arrived at the edge of the clearing. One of them called out to the steward in the local language.
“Master, these men come to make palaver about the bridge.”
Three of the men were barefoot, clad in cloth wrapped around the waist. The fourth, who was tall and strode impressively, wore sandals, had a patterned, handwoven silk cloth draped across one shoulder in toga fashion, and carried a long, carved stave. On its top, painted in shining gold, were two figures. One was of a man, a prisoner, kneeling and bound in chains. His head was pulled back from behind by the left hand of the other figure, an executioner, who, in his right hand, flourished a long, golden knife.
“This man speaks for the chief,” the steward said.
Schultz’s anxieties returned. The events of the night still formed around him a kind of touchable, a transgressive haze. The images of the men before him, even of the gold monstrosity on the top of the staff, were shot across with moving hands, hard nipples and full lips. His thoughts were slowed by the numbnesses of pleasure. But his fears were groundless.

Through the steward the lingust explained the situation in the local language(he could speak passable English, I later discovered, but would not lose face by using it in negotiations). The paramount chief had heard of the dispute the previous day. He was upset that the contractor had been insulted by the priests-”ignorant, foolish people”, the linguist said in anger. The local people were simple and easily stirred, it was important not to offend them.
The paramount chief had intervened on the contractor’s behalf and the priests had agreed that only two-thirds of the amount of whisky and gin they had at first demanded would now be necessary for the offerings and libations. The paramount chief, the linguist explained, was sorry the foreman and his employers had been troubled, but these were simple people, he repeated, and if their small worries were now attended to the paramount chief assured him there would be no more.
He stressed the gracious interest the paramount chief had taken in the unwitting embarrassment to the gods which Schultz had innocently provoked, the gullibility of the people, the anger of the priests, the importance of the bridge, the high expectations the chief had already formed of his company, and, from several reports he had received , of him, Schultz, personally. There was no mention of the girls in the night.

So it was all quickly fixed, and the linguist and his attendants had left the clearing before thirty minutes had gone. I arrived in early afternoon to find bustling preparations for the ceremonies next morning already begun. There was drumming in the village and it continued throughout the night. There were many comings and goings at Schultz’s camp. In mid afternoon two local government councillors and a member of the national parliament for the district turned up in a large American car.
These were great local dignitaries it seemed to Schultz, but were, in fact, to the local people, men of much lower status than the paramount chief and his linguist. Dressed in shirts and well groomed trousers, speaking good English, they explained how easily such misunderstandings as yesterday’s could arise. They, of course, didn’t believe in all the juju but all the farmers and v illage people around did.
“Like children,” the member of parliament said, laughing loudly with his head thrown back, showing red betel nut stains on his teeth, slapping his thigh with one huge hand and with the other emptying the last of yet another bottle of beer down his throat. “Like children”, repeated a councillor, and another round of laughter echoed, and the others joined in and slapped their thighs and quaffed their beer, until at last both Schultz and I, too, laughed uproariously and drank our beer and looked as though we might even slap our thighs.
The light was failing and the frogs and cicadas struck up, the cocoa trees and the banana fronds and the tall forest trees turned black, the lamps flickered in the village, and the drumming, on and on, on and on, went into the night.

Not long after dawn next day the first of hundreds of people had gathered in the clearing above the bridge site. Two priests and two priestesses had spent the night there, their faces and bodies covered with the white powdered clay which, in the Ghanaian forests, is the incense of holiness. Two groups of drummers, using chest-high male and female drums made of hollowed tree trunks with tightly stretched skins across one end, had commenced a low insistent beat.
The paramount chief arrived some time later in his Mercedes, a clutch of councillors in a pickup, the member of Parliament turned up in his Ford. The chief, led by the linguist with his golden staff of office, and shaded by a brilliant gold umbrella held high over him by a stolid attendant, walked down the hilly slope towards the river and sat on a chair near the drummers.
Soon, without announcement, as though on impulse, the priests and priestesses commenced to dance, slow, shuffling, awkward movements of the hips, guttural voices rising and falling in long, drawn-out wails. As they moved their assistants danced with them, sprinkling them with dust and white chalk, poking each other obscenely, treading the steps for a while and then retiring to let another take the place. For several hours the drumming and dancing rolled monotonously, mesmerically, the crowd gelled, the heat and steam of the morning rose, amnesia descended. One by one the dancers wandered off.
Only an old priestess was left, she who spoke for the god of the river, Taakora, himself. The beat of the drums had slowly risen. The drummers were covered in sweat, their shoulders and eyes and legs when twitching. The old, holy crone, her soiled white cloth around her waist, black, wizened face covered with white clay streaked with sweat, flat bags of breazts flapping against her rib-cage, shuffled and flailed around in a circle. Her red eyes rolled, alternately she hissed and spat low sounds or blew out lips in explosive circles. Around and around the drums were volleying.

She stopped and came over to where ‘the official party’ was standing. Starting with the paramount chief she threw white chalk over him, much as priests in Christian churches cast the sanctifying smoke from the censor over the faithful. She moved along the line, hissing as she went, spraying each face with dust, fixing each one with inflamed, red and rolling eyes which gleamed in a fierce glare, and yet focused catatonically inwards.
When she reached Schultz she stopped again. The drums stopped. She walked slowly around him several times, placing each old foot carefully after the other on the damp mud bank. She swayed thin hips, hissing and breathing, stopping sometimes to look at his eyes and to touch him, pulling her hand away as though touching red-hot metal. She stopped again, looking into his pale, nervous eyes with her red, ferocious ones.
The silence was long, no-one moved, standing next to him I could feel him stiffen. She slowly reached out her hand, took some of the white dust from a pottery bowl held by an assistant, gave a cry and a leap and threw it into his face in a light cloud. The drums rang out loudly again, she circled Schultz in that cramped, menacing shuffle, and launched over him great, white, cleansing clouds of benediction.
When she came to me she stopped again, and the drums too, and she walked, not shuffled, around me once, returning to look me in the eyes.. I had not realised before how controlled, baleful, malevolent were those black eyes in their red mesh of veins. She gave one last hiss, stamped her feet, shook her head angrily, threw some dust on the ground and moved away. No blessing for me, apparently, the latecomer, the originator of the bridge, not vouchsafed even the grudging acceptance of which Schultz, the sinner, but now a temporary member of the tribe, had been thought worthy.
As if on a signal the crowd, by now in hundreds, moved towards the river, caught in the one emotion. First the priests and priestesses, then the dozens of attendants and the drummers. Then the paramount chief, splendid in the red and green and gold silks of his kente toga, a blue embroidered skull-cap on his head, sheltered by the golden umbrella held above him by an attendant. Next the linguist and his wooden staff with gilded death on its top. Then Schultz and I and a representative of the timber company, and the politicians. Then the masses of local people and their children, in bright cloths and the women in coloured turbans, skins freshly oiled for the occasion now streaked with sweat and dust. They fanned down in a curve from the slope of the clearing to near the site of the bridge.
The priests had stopped beside the tree trunk Schultz had killed-killed, I write, and killed it was, where it sprawled in the fast, brown waters of the river. The drums were silent now and in the hush the people gathered close beneath the burning midday sun. Quiet. The uneasy shuffle of feet and the soft rush of the river.
The priestesses’ attendants dragged from the shade of the trees two large male goats, one brown, speckled with black, the other completely white. I had not seen them before. No doubt they had been tethered quietly all the time, but in the heated moment it seemed as though they had been spirited into place.
The old priestess came forward once more, muttering and growling, pulling the ears of one goat, pushing the rump of the other, scattering white clouds around her as she went, in and out, between and around the two goats. Then with another mad cry she grabbed the white goat and dragged it towards the river.

When I thought of it later, trying to remember how it happened, it scarcely seemed to have occurred in time at all. Two of the attendants, the two who had done most of the dancing with the old woman, rushed forward, taking the goat from her, almost knocking her over as she tottered off. The goat was hauled a few feet out along the dead tree. A long knife shone and the throat was slit in a stroke. A sharp hiss from the crowd. The paramount chief beside me stood impassive. In front of him the linguist, over whose shoulder I was looking, slowly revolved his staff between his fingers. The sun glinted from the golden figures of the kneeling prisoner and erect executioner as they turned.
The red blood spurted over the tree trunk and into the water. Still twitching in chilling death, the goat was thrown into the brown stream. The gore pulsed from its neck, staining the water as it splashed. A sacrifice to the gods of the river, it was to be carried away by the river. The gods of the place, the people hoped, would go with it, in peace and satisfaction, leaving space for the bridge to be built.
But they wouldn’t go. An eddy caught the body still plunging and kicking in its death throes, and brought it back again. Again it came around, and again, and then the kicking carcass turned, slowly moving out into the center of the stream where the current rushed, drifted downstream a little and, at first uncertainly and then faster, swung back again towards the shore.
The many lips which a few seconds previously had opened with hisses dropped apart in gasps, and a single, stifled gasp rose above the stiffened gathering. Once more the body circled slowly out into midstream, paused shakily on the fringe of the current, and traced its ghostly arc back to the starting point like a spirit in thrall. Breathing had stopped. The gasp was silently held. The old priestess stopped her growling and, bent forward on one leg, her hands crushing white clay between her fingers, she gazed in furious concentration, unmoving, joined with her eye’s beam to the circling corpse.
It turned again to the center of the river and the running current. Poised in midstream, in frozen seconds it inched a few feet downstream, backwards, forwards, still held in the circling eddy, and then broke free and plunged with the rushing water around the river bend. The white body, leaving a wash of bloody rust behind, was gone.
Hundreds of mouths exhaled in a swoosh. The drummer of the male drum beat it loudly, heavily, bang bang bang. I had watched the paramount chief through the last few minutes? hours? seconds? His face had stayed calm throughout. But the cheeks paled beneath their brown, the lips were strained and set as the grey shape circled in the water like a lost soul. Turning, he saw me watching and the face opened in a wide and condescending smile.
“The people will be happy now,” he said.

‘The blacks speak much of spirits appearing to them, and believe these are the souls of deceased persons, but they have little or no apprehension of a future state-they rather think that the soul, after death, keeps haunt about the body, and is latent in, or near its repository; and it must be grounded upon this imagination, that they have a custom of setting pots and basins, and other such furniture and utensils, at the graves of their kindred.
That which in some books of voyages is said, of the negroes of Guinea sacrificing to the devil, may have some truth in it; but nothing of that, literally speaking, is ever practised in any part of the Gold Coast, as I could ever learn by clear information. The blacks at Cape Coast are the very opposite of this, seeming rather to hold him in defiance.’
Thompson, An Account of Two Missionary Voyages, ibid.

Thompson, An Account of Two Missionary Voyages, ibid.

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