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The Bight of Benin! The Bight of Benin!

The chiggers burrow beneath your skin!

The pressure-cooker heat of Africa pasted his clothes to his skin with a mixture of sweat and steam.

The Bight of Benin! The Bight of Benin!

Blackwater fever and pounds of quinine!

Arrogant officials in what he did not at first recognise as uniforms—the xenophobia of the end of last century had eliminated European rank-symbols like peaked caps and Sam Browne belts, to replace them with militarised counterparts of tribal dress—welcomed the chance to show their contempt for their black American cousins, children of Africans who hadn’t had the sense or skill to hide from the slavers.

The Bight of Benin! The Bight of Benin!

The rain never stops and it waters the gin!

Passed through alleys of wire-mesh like cattle on the way to the slaughter-house, the party from GT with Norman and Elihu at its head proceeded to join the line waiting for transfer to the Port Mey flight. Five centuries blended into a confused stew of impressions: fat matrons swathed in gaudy cotton with matching turbans, progressive young girls in the pre-European garb of skirtlet, beads and earrings who sometimes looked on Norman with vague approval, businessmen probably from South Africa whose Western clothes contrasted with their negro colouring, a doctor—local style—carrying a vast bundle of ritual objects each with its precisely defined function in remedial psychiatry and most possessing their own distinctive aroma, an imam from Egypt in friendly professional conversation with a dog-collared Episcopalian priest …

The Bight of Benin! The Bight of Benin!

Godforsaken since God knows when!

The announcements about arrivals and departures which were uttered at intervals over booming loudspeakers were in English of a sort, but it took Norman several minutes to realise that fact. He had known intellectually that the language left behind by the colonial government was breaking up as Latin had done after the fall of Rome, but he had thought of it as happening more in Asia than Africa, to which despite everything he had certain emotional ties. Between the spoken announcements there was a never-ending susurrus of recorded music. Out of curiosity he counted the beat-pattern of one of the numbers and identified it as being in seventeen-four time, the ancient Dahomeyan rhythm of hun against hunpi, child against mother drum. He mentioned this to Elihu for want of anything else to say.

The Bight of Benin! The Bight of Benin!

You go in fat and you die there thin!

“That’s something we wished on the paleasses, anyhow,” Norman said.

“No,” Elihu contradicted. “Complex rhythms like that were among the things that the Europeans took away from us along with the rest of tribal culture. Jazz rhythms were from military marches and French dances. Modern rhythms are from Europe too—five-four from places like Hungary, seven-four from Greece and the rest of the Balkans. Even the instruments they’ve naturalised in the West are things like the sitar, from India, rather than the cora.”

“Whatinole is a cora?”

“Half a gourd with a skin stretched over it as a resonator, and a frame carrying harp-strings and bits of metal that vibrate in sympathy at the correct frequencies. You will see it around here but it hails from further east; the best players are still Sudanese, as they’ve always been.”

The Bight of Benin! The Bight of Benin!

Made us beasts instead of men!

“Did you check up on the African side of your ancestry?” Elihu inquired. “You said you were going to, I believe.”

“Never had time,” Norman muttered. But he looked at the people around him with sudden interest, thinking: maybe some of these people are my relatives—they took a lot of slaves from here.

“You won’t be able to tell by looking,” Elihu said. “Can you tell an Ibo from a Yoruba, an Ashanti from a Mandingo?”

Norman shook his head. “Can anyone?”

“There are types, the same as there are among people of European extraction. But there are black-haired Swedes and blond Spaniards, and here you don’t even have those nice obvious traits to go by.”

The Bight of Benin! The Bight of Benin!

Godamercy on a child of sin!

“They’re calling our flight,” Elihu said, and moved forward as the gate they faced was dragged open squealing on its hinges.

During the flight to Port Mey, a man carrying a musical instrument made from a stick, an old wooden box and some tongues of scrap metal tuned to a pentatonic scale, struck up a song in a wailing voice. Norman and his companions, except Elihu, found it embarrassing, but everyone else liked the idea of some home-made music and joined in.

“He’s a Shinka,” Elihu said. “From Port Mey. Telling everyone how glad he is to be going home after visiting Accra.”

A fat woman carrying a child of less than a year had taken maximum advantage of the duty concession on liquor and passed a quart bottle of arrack around among her seat-neighbours. Norman refused her offer, trying to smile, saying very slowly and clearly that he was a non-drinking Muslim—whereupon she insisted that he take a piece of majnoun instead, from a box she had tucked into the folded cloth at her bosom. That much he consented to, thinking that the hashish it contained would not be much different from the pot he was accustomed to at home, and before they landed he was in a far more cheerful mood. The man with the musical instrument rose and went from seat to seat inviting improvised contributions of a verse for his song: Elihu, obliging after some thought, did so in good Shinka and the man fell on his neck with joy. Norman was almost disappointed at the loss of a chance to do the same himself, in English, and felt a sudden wave of astonishment at what had happened to him.

Worried, he whispered to Elihu when he had the opportunity, “Elihu, I feel very odd. Would there have been something in that candy apart from—?”

“They’re Shinkas,” Elihu said, as though that explained the entire universe, and went back to the discussion he had started with the musician, in the language of which Norman was totally ignorant.

At a loss, Norman pulled out an advertising leaflet for the airline from the pocket beside his seat, and found he was staring at a conventionalised map of West Africa which made the various countries look like slices of pie wedged into the northern coast of the Bight. Narrowest of all was Beninia, a mere sliver compared with RUNG or Dahomalia.

“Jack Horner,” he murmured, half-aloud, and Elihu cocked an eyebrow at him inquiringly.


But the idea seemed very funny, and he giggled without intending to.

Pulled out a plum! Right, too: no one in history ever pulled a plum like this one out of anybody’s pie!

*   *   *

Bit by bit, he began to develop a curious sense of dual personality. Despite Elihu’s offhand dismissal of the possibility, he concluded that something must have been added to spike the majnoun he had eaten. Nothing in his experience had ever induced in him this bipartisan reaction he was now undergoing.