Racism, Misogyny, and a Cobra in the Bath
After we left the Middle East, scouting round for something else to do, my husband met a man who owned a small civil engineering consultancy in West Africa, nominally fronted by a Ghanaian with political connections. Chris was offered a job in charge of their office in Accra, with oversight of contracts in Nigeria as well. If he was successful, he would be offered a partnership. He relished the opportunity to work for himself and Africa sounded very attractive. But the position was conditional on his wife’s social suitability, as the job would entail a lot of entertaining. I had to be vetted.
I left the children with a baby-sitter and went to London for this ordeal by misogyny. We were taken out to a high-end restaurant for a meal. I wore a yellow silk shift dress I’d made myself – very simple but displaying an intricate gold collar necklace that had come from the jewellery suekh in Dubai, courtesy of one of the Sheikhs. My apparent metamorphosis from gawky girl to young executive wife was almost complete, at least on the outside. When I left home at sixteen I had never eaten in a restaurant, but now, thanks to all those Embassy dinners in the Middle East, I knew the intricacies of cutlery and crystal and the basic etiquette of a formal social occasion. I spoke only when spoken to, watched my vowels, and only picked up a fork once my host’s wife had done so. I feigned an interest in the different models of Rolls Royce being discussed and made polite noises at the high Tory views expressed by Mr B-H, my husband’s future employer. If everyone worked hard enough, apparently, no one need be poor. It was all about ‘graft’. Chris told them I was a farmer’s daughter from the Lake District; I was suitably vague about my background. At the end of the evening I felt like a complete fraud.
I must have passed the test because Chris was offered the job the following day and we celebrated. I would have gone almost anywhere to have a permanent home again. ‘I do hope you’re going to be safe,’ my mother said over the phone. ‘Don’t be silly,’ I told her, ‘You’re such a worrier!’ It was all going to be fine. Ghana was a stable country, which had until recently been ruled, after independence from Britain, by Kwame Nkrumah. Everything I read led me to believe that it was civilised. There was a photograph of a colonial style villa with a mango tree in the garden. It would be another adventure. For my mother it was another bitter separation, but she never questioned it because she believed that it was a woman’s duty to go with her husband. Before I left, she gave me her war-time engagement ring, which she could no longer wear on her arthritic fingers. I didn’t see her again for nearly three years.
We flew to Accra on a Ghana Airways flight that was different to any other I’d been on. The plane was battered and shabby, the organisation of the boarding procedure chaotic. Passengers were fighting over seat allocations and luggage space. One of them had a parrot in a cage. The plane took off from Heathrow five hours late and it was pitch dark when we landed. From the window of the plane I could see the lights on the apron – each beam a whirling column of insects. When the cabin doors were opened the humidity and the smell poured in. It was primitive, raw and so thick I could taste the stench of rotting vegetation, refuse, sewage and hot, wet earth.
On the evening of our first day, we were taken to the British Club and formally enrolled. There was a swimming pool, tennis and squash courts and a small theatre. Broad verandas were laid out with steamer chairs and bamboo tables in the shade of mature palm trees. Black waiters in white uniforms walked around with cocktails on trays. It was like a movie set. The faces of the guests were, without exception, white. ‘Are there any Ghanaian members?’ I asked. ‘Oh goodness, no!’ was the answer. ‘This isn’t their sort of thing at all. It’s not that we exclude them, of course, they just don’t want to join.’ It was a conversation that revealed a racism so deeply entrenched in the system it could easily be ignored.
I quickly fell out of love with Africa. It had great beauty, but also a frenetic, almost obscene fertility. The floors of the house had to be mopped with paraffin every week to prevent termites from eating the wood. The legs of the bed sat in little jars of paraffin to prevent the ants from devouring us. A preying mantis, a foot long, sat behind the toilet door ambushing mosquitoes. The rows of beans I planted in the garden were eaten by pests before they had a chance to grow. One morning there was a baby cobra curled up in the bath, having crawled up the drain. After the first coup there was chaos and violence everywhere I looked. It was not unusual to drive into town and pass a dead body lying by the side of the road, sometimes for days. One of our neighbours was stabbed to death when they disturbed thieves in the house during the night.
Six months into our contract, I was arrested by a policeman at gunpoint as I drove the children to school one morning. He held up his hand and stepped out into the road at a traffic crossing in the centre of town. When I stopped, he climbed into the front seat of the car and ordered me to drive to the police station. I had been observed driving dangerously, he said. But half a mile up the road he began to tell me that he was only a poor man and I was a rich European woman and he didn’t really want to arrest me at all. If I was generous to him, he would let me go. I had the children’s school fees in my bag. With shaking hands I took the roll of money out and gave it to him. He got out of the car, put his gun in its holster, and walked away. I was never sure that he was a real policeman; there were a number of cases of fake policemen committing crimes.
In colonial society racism and misogyny go together. I experienced both from the clients Chris was expected to entertain. We took one of them, an Africaan engineer from South Africa, out to a nightclub called La Rene, where he leered at the hostesses, called them ‘Mammies’ and the waiters ‘Kaffir’. He had a hard, young face with little mean eyes. He claimed, within earshot of the staff, that black people were animals – even the dogs could smell them in the bush. I had to swallow my outrage and smile politely, for the sake of Chris’s business, when I really wanted to kick his teeth in.
Another man, head of a big corporation, who had been in Africa for more than thirty years, invited us to dinner in his palatial colonial-era residence. We drove up a long, curving driveway between immaculate lawns, with fragrant hedges of Oleander and Hibiscus. The mansion was old style, a heritage building of polished floors, carved screens and antique furniture. The dinner was formal. Every chair had a servant behind it in a white suit and turban, with a tea cloth over their arms, standing to attention like a military platoon. I was struggling with mosquitoes on a particularly sticky night. My host noticed and signalled to the man behind my chair. ‘Boy! Fetch the Off’.
The man returned with a canister of insecticide on a silver drinks’ tray. As I reached up for it, my host commanded, ‘Boy! Spray madam’s legs.’
I felt utterly humiliated by the sight of this elderly, dignified man, kneeling on the floor to spray me with mosquito repellant.
‘You have to treat them with authority,’ my host announced to the dinner table, presumably for my benefit. ‘I treat mine like children. I take care of them, but every now and then they must be chastised.’
His idea of punishment was to slap their outstretched hands. It was an extension of the colonial model. Ghana, like many other former colonies, was regarded as a ‘young’ country, not grown-up enough to be able to look after its own affairs without the oversight of its colonial betters. Political and economic chaos was regarded as a kind of juvenile delinquency.
Colonel Acheampong announcing his takeover on the radio
After the second attempted coup, as the country tumbled into bankruptcy, the English owner of the company came out on a visit to assess the situation. Chris told me that I had to be on my best behaviour to impress. He was still on probation, hoping to become a full partner. I was expected to entertain Mr B-H at our house, alongside a few other selected guests. Finding ingredients suitable for a dinner party was a challenge without foreign currency. After a visit to the market I planned to have baked fish with creamed yam, a kind of dumpling called fufu with spicy palm oil stew, plantain crisps, a salad of tomatoes and onions, and coconut pudding.
That morning, my Head Boy scalded his arm in the kitchen and was taken to hospital. Desperate for help with a menu that was beyond my skill level, a friend leant me her cook and her ‘small boy’ as a waiter. As this was a dinner jacket affair I got out the big silver platters and asked the cook to make sure they were clean before using them for food. Then I went to get dressed. It was a hot night and I chose to wear a dress with a long skirt, split to thigh level, very flattering and cool. Everything appeared to go quite well. I hadn’t been able to find any wine, so I had made a rum and fruit punch – the only way to make the local spirit drinkable. The guests were quite merry. The cook and the small boy managed the silver service really well, balancing the salvers on their palms high above their shoulders and using two spoons to scoop the food onto the plate. I noticed, as they served the creamed yam that each scoop was green underneath and realised, with a sinking heart, that the cooks had cleaned the silver with polish and neglected to wash the dishes before putting the food on them. What was I supposed to do? It was the main part of the meal and had taken all day to prepare. I decided that I simply wasn’t going to notice and if any of the guests did, they could simply leave the food on the side of the plate. Drowned in the bright crimson palm oil sauce it was possible to miss it. But worse was to come.
Halfway through the main course I felt a hand on my left knee. As I was sitting at right angles to Mr B-H, who was at the head of the table, it could only be him. I froze. The hand began to work its way up my bare thigh, to the edge of my pants. I looked indignantly at my husband’s boss but he wasn’t looking at me. He was talking to the man on the opposite side of the table while he tried to wriggle his fingers underneath the elastic. He had a satisfied smile on his face as he talked, and I knew that he was enjoying my discomfiture, knowing that I would never dare to make a fuss in front of clients; knowing that I would never jeopardise my husband’s job. Feeling sick, I excused myself, got up and went to the bathroom.
I felt angry for days afterwards and could hardly bring myself to be polite for the remaining time of his stay. On his final night he told Chris he would like to go to the nightclub ‘for a little fun’ and I claimed a headache and let them go alone. Being sexually assaulted by the boss seemed to be just one of the things an executive wife was expected to handle as part of the job description.