40. Among the Teetotallers

By Peter Fraenkel

1958, Monrovia, Liberia. Just married. We had moved to a little house that Merran, my new wife, had leased from some missionaries. It was in New Krutown, a tribal village on the edge of Monrovia. Merran was working on a social study of the Kru community so the house was well situated to observe ….and to be observed.

We were close to a busy Pentecostal church. Hymn singing sounded many a day and, on feast days, throughout the night.

Days were hot, sometimes very hot. The coolest spot was our shaded front veranda. The church’s Ladies League marched past in procession and waved to us cheerfully without interrupting their hymn. Merran was innocently lighting a cigarette. The leading lady stopped, turned, marched on to our veranda and pointed to the glowing fag:

“God doesn’t like it!”

Merran stubbed out her cigarette. As a non-smoker I was not greatly sympathetic. But I did wonder: Merran had a one-year fellowship. Could she keep off tobacco that long?

Dusk came. The day cooled – time for a relaxing drink. We had both lived in other parts of Africa where a “sundowner” – whisky-and-soda with ice -was the norm, at least among whites. In Liberia, however, whisky was heavily taxed and we were poor. We found a tolerable alternative: Spanish brandy. This was much cheaper because – we suspected – it had been smuggled in. Yes, customs duties could be avoided, but could the Ladies League – and God?

We cautiously brought out cups and saucers and a teapot filled with brandy and soda. As the evening cooled we relaxed on our veranda. The Ladies’ League passed by, singing and waved to us, suspecting no evil.

Brandy arrived somewhat irregularly, brought in by “Last Price”. We never knew his real name but that’s what everybody called him: Last Price. We noticed that his visits coincided with the arrival of a French tramp steamer in Monrovia port. A day after docking he would call and from his rucksack would produce a bottle or two. His price was always announced as “my last price” but we knew (and he knew we knew) there would be other, laster prices.

Merran was working hard, interviewing all morning, taking notes, typing up the notes in the afternoon. I tried to make myself useful but there was little for me to do. One of the neighbourhood lads occasionally dropped in for a chat. Wambi was at secondary school though he was rather old to be still at school. This was, however, not unusual. Many young Liberians had to interrupt their schooling to earn money to pay the next year’s school fees. He told me he hoped to become a doctor.

One day he confided to me that he had just had to walk half a mile to get hold of a bottle of beer. Moreover, he had to do it stealthily what with all that “God palaver” about. His momma was one of the “God fearing”. She was, in fact, the choir leader of the Ladies’ League. She was a market trader. Such women were often wealthy and influential. Had I not noticed her? She had been at the head of the choir which had marched past a little earlier. They had been singing lustily:

“Tubman* is a father to his people.

He give me a house.

He give me good water.

Tubman is a daddy to his people.”

I offered Wambi a cup of tea. He wasn’t very interested. Rashly I said “This is special tea. You’ll like it.”

He did.

He turned up again the next day, introducing “my cousin Bofu. If you have got a cup of tea, he will drink it….”

I poured him a cup but as I did so I realised I was making a mistake. A serious mistake. No doubt he had more cousins…. many more. Before long our veranda would be known as a den of vice. What was I doing to Merran’s research situation? She had had to battle for some years to get this fellowship. They had been reluctant to send a pretty young girl into “darkest Africa”. She had overcome their reluctance but now her own husband… her husband of only five weeks …. What was I doing?

Drastic action was required. Immediately.

“Listen: You keep your mouth shut. If you tell one more person, I’ll go and talk to your mother….”

He almost dropped his cup: “No, no, no, I beg of you! She’ll stop my school fees. She will. She’s full of this God palaver. What will become of me? I beg of you, man!”

“And you? Aren’t you God fearing?”

“Me? Well, yes…. maybe. But … I’m more…. Momma fearing!”

The rest was silence.


*William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman – president of Liberia 1944-1971 – longest serving president of the country.