Monrovia, Liberia, 1958. Newly married.
Even before we opened the door the noise was overwhelming. I might have turned tail but was too ashamed. If Merran, my young wife, was bold enough to venture into such a place, how could I chicken out?
The band was loud but the revellers added greatly to the racket. Some were shouting merrily to friends at distant tables. Others were banging their empty beer bottles on the tables, beating time with the band.
I had been brought up in the racial segregation of a British protectorate and – like other whites in Northern Rhodesia – would never have ventured into such a place. But Liberia was different – the only corner of Africa that had no history of white colonialism. This was, of course, why Merran had chosen it for her sociological study.* She had also considered Ethiopia, but that country had experienced some years of Italian occupation. Liberia had never had white rule.
I eyed the crowd nervously. Several moved to make room for us on the bench at one of the long tables. They did not seem hostile.
“You’re British?” asked a black man near me. I confirmed we were. “So are we …. most of us here.”
I may have I looked incredulous so he added “Gold Coasters”.
The Gold Coast was still a British colony but was about to become independent as Ghana. He moved a foot nearer and lowered his voice. I had difficulty in making out what he was saying:
“You’ll be safe here, very safe. Don’t look now but that man in the coloured shirt” – he nodded discreetly in the man’s direction – “relations officer. You understand?”
I did. My wife, who had spent some months in Liberia before I had joined her, had briefed me about this local euphemism. It meant government spy.
“If there’s any trouble, he’ll call for help. So – you’re safe here.”
I was about to turn to Merran to whisper what I had learnt when she turned to me and told me the very same thing. Her neighbour, too, had warned her to be careful …. not to say anything critical of the government. We might be overheard.”
One of our neighbours brought us a bottle of German beer. “You’re guests here in Africa.”
It seemed a friendly crowd and despite these warnings implying that we needed protection I did not expect any trouble. I was wrong. Two men at a neighbouring table started shouting at each other. The one with that brightly coloured shirt was shaking his fist at the other, a taller man. Our neighbours watched unperturbed and did not intervene. In fact, I got the impression they rather enjoyed the scene. Then the one in the coloured shirt challenged the other to come outside and fight. Encouraged by the onlookers, the two of them made for the door. Several onlookers followed them out.
Once the contestants were safely out of earshot our neighbours turned to us to explain.
“Relations officers, both of them. But the one in the coloured shirt says the Accra Bar Number 2 is his beat. Only his. The other has no business coming in here. I guess he gets bribes from the bar and doesn’t want to share.”
A second one said “I hope they bash each other bloody. Snoopers … spies!” He made as if to spit.
Some of our neighbours trooped outside to watch the fight. I decided it might be wiser to head for home. Merran, however, turned back, despite my protests. “Wait for me,” she said.
A few moments later she re-joined me.
“Why did you go back?”
“I wanted to check on the tribal affiliations of those two.”
Ever the sociologist!
“That woman, she not afeared!” said a neighbour admiringly.
“Gbaunyeno”, said a second. Others nodded: “Good name that: Gbaunyeno”
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“Warrior woman”, he said. “Never afraid.”
Merran dismissed this deprecatingly. “Warriors’ woman? Probably means camp follower …. Army whore.”
*“Tribe and Class in Monrovia” Merran Fraenkel. Oxford University Press. 1964.