COWRIE OMINOUS BABOONS
Recently I described a visit to a traditional healer who had diagnosed an ailment affecting an Ivoirian friend of mine whose hand was inexplicably painful. The healer had also suggested that a curse by someone nearby might be the cause. The plant medicines prescribed for the hand had worked well but my friend Benedicta was anxious to eliminate the curse itself, assuming that it had been cast by her Cameroonian neighbour, whom she regarded as a “sorciere”. So, two months later, we trundled in an old taxi out of Abidjan early on a Sunday morning through Abobo towards Anyama, stopping on the way to select and buy two poules pondeuses (laying hens) which were stowed in the front of the car.
When we got there, the scene before me was again lively and crowded, reminding me of the curtain-raising scene of a popular Italian operatta. A grassless quadrangle was framed by barns and buildings, with dozens of pigeons, ducks and geese, four or five flea-scratching dogs and several cats. Untrained flies were everywhere. An enormous lady still stirred a huge cauldron of boiling water over a woodfire just inside a barn, and children were sagely going in different directions with distinct purposes. One held a half-eaten crust, another a car windscreen wiper. The healer, a George Clooney lookalike, emerged yawning from a door, scratching his chest, welcomed us and gave instructions (I was politely asked not to take photos). I followed others behind the house where a small hole had been dug near a goat munching on a loose tether.
On a piece of paper torn from an exercise book George Clooney wrote the names of my friend and her neighbour, folded it carefully and stowed it in the hole. Then his son stepped forward holding one of the hens in one hand and a machete in the other. A pick-axe had already been laid diagonally across the hole providing a stable angle for the sacrifice. He wedged the hen’s feet beneath the handle and, holding its neck on the angle, made a careful, slow and decisive cut with the machete. He waited for a few drops of blood to fall into the hole, then let the hen go. It panic-flap-cartwheeled away fast and furious, turning several full somersaults before it came to rest by a woodpile. The same was done with the second hen which expired in a different part of the compound. Each hen was examined and proudly carried back by younger sons who evidently saw their role as privileged.
We returned to the main building where George Clooney, seated on a mattress turning over cowrie shells in a wooden bowl with his hands, explained that the action had been successful and that the spell, if any, had been lifted, due to the final positions of the hens (the body in relation to the wings and feet). Benedicta said she felt “relieved”. I was temporarily unavailable for comment, although it wasn’t as bad as on the following weekend when I paid a visit to Abobo market and tripped over eight large cow’s heads roped together on the pavement.
Abobo Market, October 2019
I was invited to the wedding of a work colleague in Ghana and took the short flight to Accra, staying there for a night before meeting an arranged coach to take guests to Akosombo, a town near the eastern frontier of Ghana. I waited at the Accra Mall for over three hours, five beers, a whisky and a sandwich. Eventually a small mini-bus rolled up just as a large group of wedding guests appeared, obviously with better advance information than I had had. Our bags were packed on the roof and we shunted haltingly away in the grimy traffic, the frayed cover on top flapping like a lazy storm petrel. There was huge congestion near indescribable road repairs at Tema, then, on a stretch of motorway, an ominous clattering could be heard from the roof. We all looked back in anguish to see half the luggage splattered over the motorway, many of the bags open and others in imminent danger of being run over by the cars. People ran back to recover their bags and belongings, dodging the impatient hooting traffic as they did so. When all the bags were packed away again (mine, miraculously, had not been damaged), and the cover firmly knotted, we got going, just as thunder and jagged lightning split the darkening sky.
We arrived three hours after we left Accra and I checked into a modest hotel within walking distance of the Royal Senchi, the very classy Dutch-owned hotel that would host the wedding. In the evening I ate dinner on the terrace with a shouty James Brownesque Muslim prayer session going on next door. I also heard some happy-clappy melodic singing and saw several boys running fast in unison down the dark main road, red ribbons in their hair, followed by an ambulance. Disconcertingly, this turned out to be a processional wake for a boy who had earlier died while playing football.
Although the rainy weather continued in Akosombo, all the right things happened in the wedding, just about, in the right order, although the overall coordination of the event owed far more to chance than to plan. The bride and groom were proud and tall and the setting was perfect, but I was relieved to be back in Abidjan after a jangling passage back to the airport in the same bus on the Sunday, a journey whose start had already been severely delayed until I found the missing driver snoring soundly in some bushes.
Lionel, Eric and Naima, Akosombo, Ghana, October 2019
There was never a dull moment. The outcropped scenery, especially when we passed the Krobo Hills and the Shai hills reserve, made me want to stay and explore. At one stage we passed a section of road along which a large family of baboons had settled. Apparently contented and docile, they lolloped around and across the road to accept bananas from car windows without regard for oncoming traffic. There was just time at Accra’s gleaming new airport to enjoy my favourite Ghanaian vegetarian meal, Red-Red, a palm oil stew made with black-eyed beans and plantains.
I spent Halloween having a rare and very civilized dinner party in the company of interesting and inspiring people. It was one of very few such dinner parties I have been at in Abidjan and it made me think wistfully of the society I have missed by being away from Europe for so long. My departure from Abidjan is now imminent as I finish my employment contract after three years. Meanwhile, Alli has completed her enormous task of sorting and emptying our Leymen house following its sale. She consigned some items to storage and sold or gave others away, while keeping the essentials before she moves back to the UK. This ends our 15-year residency in Basel and the Alsace. I will stay in Abidjan until, via Advent in Brussels and Christmas in Luxembourg, I return to Brexitland (assuming they are letting in purple passports).
As David Bowie once sang, “bong, bong, just watch me now..”