“In A Year or Two He was Right in
the Same Boat With All of Us, You Know.”
I came across a notebook which I kept when I was in Nigeria. It was not quite a diary, it was a notebook of things that I felt, which is quite different from a diary. A diary says, “This morning I took a trip to the museum. Wrote letter. Talked to L.” That kind of thing. This is a notebook where I really put down impressions of things that I wanted to remember, and then I immediately forgot about the notebook—which says something about life there too. I took this notebook out today and I looked at this thing for a minute. It didn’t occur to me what I was referring to because, when you’re in a place and you see all these things, you write in a kind of shorthand, because you forget that one day you will not remember. You just sort of write it down.
Shepherd spoke on the radio several times about the notebooks he kept on his travels. It would be such an extraordinary find to encounter some of them!
Well, here I’m trying to tell you what heat does to people, in relation to some time ago when we were talking about how a place will change even your morality. Whether you know it or not, or whether you want it to or not, it will. With the heat, with the kind of sand there is, with the kind of leaves there are, with the sort of caterpillars that crawl over your shoe. All of these things will combine to change you into another kind of person. And I was in a place—Bagady is a place that is closer to the equator than Legos, and is south of Legos on the Bay of Guinea—or the Gulf of Guinea.
First I will have to tell you what kind of place the Gulf of Guinea is. It is one of the most interesting looking seas I have ever seen. The sea comes rolling in and is almost frighteningly innocent looking. Because the combination of the white sand ion the beachhead and the kind of sun that shines down two or three degrees north of the equator, combines to make the sea look almost like milk. It is not blue, it is not the color of the sea off Coney Island, which is a kind of slate gray, sometimes gets a little green, sometimes a faint blue, but mostly gray. No. This sea looks almost white—it’s an illusion of course. A blue sea is literally reflecting the blue sky and that’s why you see it blue.
But the sun and the sky in Africa, particularly right after noon, does not stop—there’s no place where you say, “There’s the sun.” It’s like the whole sky is the sun. Oh boy, I’ll tell you! It just comes down. It hits you on the top of the head with great big hammers.
Well, the sea reflects the sun and at the same time, the bottom of the sea there happens to be very white sand, so you wind up with the sea looking as though it were sort of skim milk. It rolls up in great, long comers, just shrooooooo—long, rolling comers. Shrooooooo! It rolls up and it looks very innocent with this little white foam and it recedes, and that sun is beating down and that heat has got hold of everything you own and those palm trees are hanging down and behind you there are huts that are sort of conical, made out of rattan and bamboo and palm leaves. Shrooooooo—water’s coming in. That’s Bagady!
I’m walking along this beach and I met there an Englishman who had been in Nigeria and that area for many years, working for some kind of paint company. We’re walking along the beach and talking about the sharks. I don’t know why, whenever I read about sharks, they always talk about the sharks along the Great Barrier Reef, they always talk about the sharks in certain parts of the Pacific, but they continually ignore the Gulf of Guinea where the sharks are truly legendary. Apparently these sharks have been known to come up and just leap right out of the water, bit off fourteen-hundred pounds of bananas, and leave. That kind of thing. Giants.
And all the natives in this area are fishermen. They fish out of long, the most graceful dugout canoes I’ve ever seen in my life. Probably thirty feet long and sometimes four feet wide, carved out of a gigantic tree. They soak these in salt water for a long time and then they dry them and then cover them with some kind of pitch, so they’re black and then they paint over the entire length of them in big white and red swirls. They paint big red eyes on the front of them and they name them, like “A Very Truly Love,” in big, white English letters on the side. Or something like, “Never Trust a Woman—boat.” A great name for a boat. Or, “Trust Only A Few.”
About ten guys at once will push these things out, run like mad, the big comers go shrooooo!—push them all back on shore. Then they get the thing pointed out again. They run as soon as the wave goes out, they run like mad—shrooooo!— pushes them back again, and finally they get the thing going and a wave will take them fifteen feet up in the air shrooooo!— shrooooo!—they’re paddling like mad with their little wooden paddles, they’re insanely paddling straight out to sea and they’ll get going. About three of these go out and finally make it. They’ll be a couple hundred yards out from the beach where the water has stopped being big comers, and is comparatively calm, and they put up a little, dirty, rotten, crummy sail like cheesecloth that’s been used to clean a lot of old Oldsmobiles, and they’ll put these things up and they’ll start floating away and they’re going down, way down the coast someplace to fish.
They will be out three days—never come back and boy, is that a sea! They tell stories about sharks. When the guys are launching their boats, sometimes two or three will get belted at one time. Oh boy, these babies just lay off shore there and they’re about twenty-eight feet long—they’re long , white, and cool. They just lay there and they strike like lightning.
This kind of place, of course, does different things to people. It is not quite the same as, let’s say, Queens. Not at all. Very little parallels between Queens and Nigeria. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is they occupy the same planet. That’s about all. Other than that—wow! And a few of the same physical laws obtain. Like gravity. They have gravity there. Everybody there, unless you’ve been around the sharks too long, you have two feet, or nearly. But all the while that sea— shrooooo! and it just looks great. You lie on your back and you think, Oh boy!”
The only hooker of it is that they seem to loose on the average, one to five people a day! Life is very different in many parts of the world. And people laugh about it. “Oh yeah, we loose many people, ha, ha, ha, ha, many people in the sea, ha, ha, ha. Stay away water. Water no good, sir. Water no good, ha, ha. I tell you, my aunt one day, she—oop, gone, gone, like that.” They don’t lose them to sharks—they have an undertow that has been known to draw in entire African villages, right into the water! It’s like the ocean itself comes out and grabs you! Whooo! Down you go. And they’ve been carried as far away as Portugal in fifteen seconds under water all the way. Holy smokes! You get so you’re afraid to go down there and just stick your foot in the water. You think either a giant fist is going to come out and grab you—it’s the ocean itself—the Atlantic Ocean grabs you by the foot—with teeth that run all the way back to its stern—starts eating you like a corn on the cob.
It’s a different thing. The sun is coming down. And now you want to get to the point of my somewhat sinister and very, very enigmatic writing in my notebook.
This Englishman and I were walking along on the beach—he’d been there for about ten years and I said, “What does this heat do to you—after a while?” I meant, how do you—I feel like all the time I was there I felt half-sick. Like something wasn’t working right all the time. Of course, if you’re there a year or so, I suppose, even if you’re there a couple of months—that you get over. But other things begin to set in.
He says, “Actually, old chap, things happen. Oh, a chap, Henderson, he was working for Shell Oil in Ghana, and the heat—very little energy. Heat actually. This chap was in Ghana and his wife was getting a bit irritated—had no energy at all, actually. And so one day she announced that she had taken a lover, you know. A man from Luxemburg who had just arrived. And I—I asked, ‘Henderson, old man—‘ actually thirty years ago—not very good show, actually. And Henderson says to me, ‘Oh, oh, Fred is—oh, no, no, I’m actually very relieved, actually. It takes a lot of pressure off me, you know. I’m very relieved—I—yes, it’s all right. Takes some of the pressure off me.’”
Well, we walked along a while there and I began to realize that the world of Graham Greene is not exactly the world of Babylon. If you wrote a play about that, no one would believe you. They’d say, “Nobody acts like that!” Oh no? When you’re in Ghana and the temperature is one-hundred-and-four, and you’ve been there nine years, I suspect you do not quite act the same as you do on McDougal Street.
So I looked at this little note in my book. My note reads, “Men in tropics have no energy whatsoever. Relate incident of Ghana friend of Luxemburger, whose man approved of wife’s lover.”
The Englishman carried the story a little further when I said, “What about the guy who was the lover?”
He said, “Oh, actually, you know, in a year of two he was right in the same boat with all of us, you know. This damned heat, you know. Let’s go over to the club and have a drink. I feel like a drink of gin. What do you say to a little gin?”