71. Howling

By Peter Fraenkel

Days were hot and miserable at Monrovia, Liberia. Humidity sapped one’s energy. Some people had air conditioning but few did. There was not much point. Air conditioning requires electricity but in Monrovia this was erratic. Very erratic.  There were long hours when our power was off.

Evenings, fortunately, cooled off. And the best place in town was Hanno’s roof terrace. He was the local representative of the Goethe Institut – the German cultural institute.

It was a curious flat he had, above the United Nations offices. One had to climb up through four floors of offices to reach a flat roof. In the centre of this roof was one single room, though a large one but it took up no more than a quarter of the roof area. The room had a shower cubicle in one corner. Around it was terrace open to the sky but with a waist-high balustrade around it. Unfortunately one could not sit there while the sun was beating down on it but that changed when the sun set.  Sitting there under the stars we could now catch the cool winds blowing in from the sea. So there sat Hanno most evenings in his deckchair and we, his friends, joined him in more deck chairs, enjoying a cool Becks beer.  This had to be brought up from a fridge kept in one of the U.N. offices, a floor lower. The fridge ran on paraffin since electricity was so erratic. There was a small kitchen there too and James, Hanno’s servant, brought up plates of food. We, Hanno’s friends, spent many an evening there with him.

We were sitting there, chatting, when it started: first one dog was howling, then a second. Not much later a third joined in. A cacophony!  The wailing, shrieking, keening seemed to be spreading over all the town.

I did not remember ever hearing such a sound before, though it had been described to me: A garrulous old Irishman who lived near us, back in London, had often told me about banshees,…. far too often. Mr. Joyce – though he pronounced it Jyce – buttonholed me, and anyone else he could waylay, to tell us about these spirit creatures whose keening heralded a death in the family.

Had he ever heard them? I asked. “Sure thing – the night my mother died.  The letter telling me she had passed away only got to me some days later.  But I knew. The banshees had foretold it.  People also get such warnings from hell hounds, but it was the banshees who told me.”

Hell hounds, he explained, were large, fierce, shaggy dogs with glowing red eyes. They too heralded deaths.

Another day he told me that banshees could not cross water. They were very scared of water.

“So how could they come from Ireland to warn you in England?”

“Don’t know. Perhaps by ferryboat? I didn’t ask.”

I found it hard to believe that now such Irish banshees had reached Liberia in West Africa.

But the howling around us was becoming ever louder. Hanno questioned James, his cook. “Dogs,” he said immediately. “They howl like that when someone is cooking dog meat. They smell it.”

“But who eats dog?”

“The Gbande,” said James. “Savages!”

Hanno intervened: “Ask the Gbande and they’ll tell you it’s the Krahn. And the Kahn will blame the Kpelle. Each tribe will blame another.  I’ve never come across anyone willing to admit to eating dog. And yet – dogs do disappear – frequently.”

James shook his head. “Yes, Massa. People lie.  All people lie. But listen to the dogs – they don’t lie.”