The ant-lion builds its traps in sandy soil. It fashions – somehow – a geometrically perfect inverted cone. At the tip of the cone the ant-lion lurks, buried and invisible, waiting for any small insect to tumble in. When this occurs, the ant-lion at first makes no move. The walls of the cone are so smooth, the sand-grains they are composed of so fine, that only the largest insects can gain any purchase. As the smaller victims slither and scrabble on the steep sides of the cone, the ant-lion spits – or flicks – more sand at them, causing them to tumble down into the cone-tip where they are dragged beneath the sand and devoured.
The largest anti-lion cone I ever saw was about three inches deep; the predator itself half an inch long. I caught it underneath our house in Signals Road, Achimota, in what was then the Gold Coast. The house was built on six-foot concrete piles. Beneath it was sand, pocked with ant-lion traps. A lunar landscape of immaculate craters. Hundreds upon hundreds of ant-lions. A no man’s land for any small crawling insect. Our particular ploy was to dig out a small ant-lion and drop it in the hole of a larger one.
I always think of ant-lions when I think of our house in Achimota. It is the first of our houses in Africa that I remember, though we had lived in two before that. I was born in a converted officers’ mess, made of mud bricks and with a corrugated-iron roof. Achimota was about six miles from Accra and the coast. On the huge beaches, ten-foot breakers would cream in from the Atlantic. We weren’t allowed on the surf beaches until we were older and could belly-surf, but there were rocky stretches with rock pools burgeoning with submarine life. Sitting in a rock-pool, waist deep in blood-warm water, aged five. Life was good.
We moved away from Achimota to Legon, three miles further inland, to the new campus of the University of Ghana. We lived in a large U-shaped house, painted white with a red tiled roof. There was a large stoep, big enough for thirty to gather on, that gave onto the enormous garden and a view of the surrounding countryside – grass-covered hills, clumps of small tough trees.
The insect I associate with the house in Legon is the velvet mite. These completely benign creatures were the size of a fingernail, a brilliant coruscating red and did indeed seem to be covered in a sort of velvety fur. They were the only insects I’ve ever encountered that you could stroke. At certain times of the year, particularly after the rainy season, they proliferated, and the grass around our house hotched with them. My sisters and I used to ranch velvet mites, gathering them in their hundreds into makeshift twig corrals. There the mites would mill around aimlessly, square feet of shifting scarlet velvet, a boiling carpet of red.
We moved to Nigeria, to Ibadan, in 1964. Our house on the university campus there was long and straight. The garden was surrounded by a dense hibiscus and poinsettia hedge and was full of trees: frangipani, cotton trees and tall elegant casuarina pines. I would borrow our gardener’s machete and chop at the frangipani trees. Bury the curved blade (made in Czechoslovakia) in the bole, which was soft and yielding. The tree bled a white milk that dripped all day. Later I bought my own machete for five shillings. It was useful for hacking things down. Ibadan is set in the middle of tropical rain forest, things grow at an enormous speed. I cut two poles and stuck them in the ground to support our badminton net. When I came back from school three months later they had turned into trees.
The insect I associate with our house in Ibadan is the sausage fly. It’s not really a fly at all but some kind of bloated ant that grows wings and takes to the air after rain. The sausage fly is about an inch long, a hard shiny banger-brown: hence its name. In the evening, after it has rained, you shut all your windows. Wings unfold from the carapace of the sausage fly and they take to the air in droves. They are not very good in the air – it isn’t their natural element – and it’s as if they have only borrowed the wings for the day. They steer haphazardly for the nearest light. Inside the house you can hear them carom into the windows and wire mosquito-netting. Squadrons veer unsteadily around exterior lights. They only have their wings for an hour or so. The sausage flies touch down and their wings fall off. A lot of them die as a result of mid-air collisions, flying into walls and such like. The next morning the veranda is crunchy underfoot with their hard bodies, and brilliant fragile drifts of discarded wings lie in the corners. The surviving sausage flies have resumed their earthly existence and have crawled off somewhere to complete their life-cycle.
My father went out to West Africa during the Second World War. He was in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was based in Lagos, Jos in Northern Nigeria (where they grow strawberries and new potatoes on the plateau all year round) and in the Gold Coast. We have a picture of him, very young and thin, sitting on a cane chair outside a grass hut some time in 1944. He came back to the Gold Coast in 1950 with my mother, planning to stay a few years only. He remained until 1977, until he was forced to leave because of ill-health. He had contracted a curious and rare disease called ‘Q’ fever. He had been a doctor working in Africa all his life and eventually Africa was literally the death of him.
His work began very early in the day. He would work through until two in the afternoon when he returned home for lunch. He would sleep until four and then go and play nine holes of golf. In the evening my mother would join him and their friends on the stoep of the golf club (drink was plentiful, very cheap and on credit). Perhaps there would be an impromptu supper-party later on. There was nothing frenetic or debauched in this social round – it was a far cry from Happy Valley – but in comparison to the life that most of these members of the professional middle class would have been living in Britain in the Fifties it must have seemed paradisical.
They could lead this life because everyone had servants. My parents had only been in the Gold Coast a week when one morning they discovered a small old man sitting on the kitchen steps. He said his name was Kofi and he had heard they needed a cook. Kofi was our cook for the next 14 years. He and his family lived in a village some two miles away. In Legon our house had servants’ quarters, a simple, not to say crude, concrete cottage a few yards from the main house. This was occupied by Kofi’s son Kwame, who was then in his twenties. He is now a major in a tank battalion in the Ghanaian Army. Kwame used to baby-sit for my parents. My sisters and I would often spend the evenings in his hot concrete room, eating the very peppery fried plantain that he would prepare on a small cast-iron charcoal brazier in the corner.
In Nigeria we had a cook and a houseboy, Johnson and Israel. Johnson was very old, his hair was greying, and he was very set in his ways. When I read Joyce Cary’s Mr Johnson I always think of our old cook. Cary’s Johnson is much younger but the two had much in common. Johnson had been married many times but had no children. This, he claimed, was the fault of the wives he had had and nothing to do with his potency. Just before we left Nigeria he got married again to a very young girl. She used to do washing for us and when Johnson was away in the afternoons received visits from other men. Eventually she became pregnant and later had a baby girl. There never was a prouder father.
Johnson was very tall and lanky, Israel was extremely small and walked everywhere very fast. He was an Easterner, an Ibo, and during the Biafran War had joined the Biafran Army in order to get something to eat. One day he was given a rifle and five rounds of ammunition and was deployed in the bush to repel an attack by the Federal forces. He was always quite candid about what he did next. He took off his camouflage jacket (the only uniform he possessed) and buried it. Then he threw his rifle away and deserted.
Once, in some waiting-room, or at some station bookstall, I picked up a copy of Scientific American. On the cover was what looked like a picture of a badly-made patchwork quilt, all greys, rusts and ochrous browns. I recognised it immediately as an aerial photograph of Ibadan town centre, without need of recourse to the theme of the issue – which was ‘Town Planning in the Third World’, or something equivalent. Ibadan is lodged as firmly in my mind as any of the other cities I’ve lived in. It is known, sometimes affectionately, as the largest village in Africa. It has a population of well over one million. Most of the buildings within its sprawling purlieus are made of mud and roofed with corrugated iron. The streets crumble away at the edges into large deep ditches and are permanently crammed with cars. From every house and shop, radio music blares. At night the buildings are lit with fluorescent tubes, predominantly green and blue. There is public transport but the most common way of getting about the city is in Volkswagen vans. When you see a VW coming you stick out your hand and it stops. You climb in (the sliding doors are removed) and give sixpence to a small boy who hangs onto the outside. The vans ply certain basic routes. When you want to get off you rap with your knuckles on the roof. The van stops at once.
I used to travel by this means from the university campus into town to the Recreation Club. Here you could play tennis, golf and squash, swim at the pool, eat snacks and drink at the bars. During school holidays it was a focal point for the children of expatriates. We would spend the entire day there. In the evening we would go to the cinema or go to a party. There were lots of parties. Parties in town, parties at the university, parties at the New Reservation, parties in Bodija. Teenage parties: the same boys, the same girls, records and beer, sometimes a punch made from illicit gin brewed on the banks of distant creeks and reputed to make you blind if you drank too much.
Excursions out of town were few and far between. Sometimes we would go fishing. Drive out a couple of hours into the jungle to find a slow brown river and spin for perch. Sometimes we went down to Lagos for a week to stay in rickety beach huts at Tarqua Bay. Fish off the breakwater; go sailing – dodging the merchant ships steaming in to Lagos harbour; surf at the surfing beach, and at night sleep on camp beds in the open air, beneath the stars and a mosquito net. The Americans refer to the children of US Army personnel serving abroad as ‘army brats’ or ‘air force brats’. There were times when we were ‘colonial brats’. Lazy, self-regarding, pleasure-seeking and utterly incurious about the country we were living in.
That all changed with the Biafran War. I well remember the day of the military coup that precipitated the country into its civil war. I was due to fly back to Britain for the start of the school term. Johnson, our cook, laconically told me that I wouldn’t be going. Why not? I asked. Because, he said, there’s going to be a military coup on Monday. He was right.
When the war was on (1967-70) the tenor of life changed radically, largely because of the overwhelming presence off the Nigerian Army. From the minute you stepped off the plane at Ikeja airport armed soldiery became a constant feature of your day. Off-duty soldiers kept their guns with them: on buses, in bars, taking their kids for a walk.
One evening driving along a quiet road with my father, we turned a corner and passed an oil drum with a plank leaning against it jutting a couple of feet into the road. It was only when we saw half a dozen soldiers spring from the trees with Kalashnikovs levelled that we realised it was a road block. We stopped abruptly and got out of the car. The guns were lowered and the car was searched. They were looking for currency smugglers, they said. The soldiers were young and edgy. They wore the odd bit of camouflage uniform supplemented by their own clothes: gym shoes, flannel trousers, a Hawaiian shirt. Their guns looked very old – Warsaw Pact surplus – with numbers burnt crudely into the stock. You looked at these guys, who had volunteered because of the free beer and cigarettes the Army provided, and wondered what was going on in the rebel heartland.
I haven’t been back to Nigeria or any part of West Africa since 1973. I started writing about it in 1976 when I wrote an (unpublished) novel about the Biafran War. Subsequent efforts of hindsight and occasional nostalgia keep it very fresh in my mind. Particularly heavy rain, a warm and muggy night, the sound of crickets, a cold beer on a hot day, are always weighed up against their African equivalents and always found wanting. But it’s the music of Nat King Cole that proves the most effective Proustian trigger.
It was one of my father’s habits when he first got up in the morning almost immediately to put a record on a shiny walnut hi-fi he had had shipped out from Britain. Invariably, the record he chose was by Nat King Cole, the first bars of which were greeted by loud groans from the rest of the family. But he paid no heed. He would stand in the middle of the main room, the sliding glass doors thrown wide open to catch the cool early-morning breeze and look out on the sunlit view as he sang along with Nat Cole. He always struck me in those moments as being a very happy man. Whenever I hear that distinctive dry voice I think of my father and of Africa in the early morning.