Silent witnesses – Nigerian memories (4)

Once in a while, staff in the camp in the Delta could put their name down for a free weekend in an old planter’s house, inland,  on the bank of the Ethiope River, a fairytale river with crystal clear water which probably came from a spring. It was run by some servants in starched white jackets complete with brass buttons. They served breakfast and some simple meals. No airconditioning. There were ceiling fans and one slept under mosquito nets which added to the colonial atmosphere.

The trip was an adventure. A few hours on a red sandstone road, very bumpy, across a hilly countryside. At the bottom of every hill was a small stream and a narrow concrete bridge across it, with low unforgiving concrete walls on either side. There, I discovered another national sport: the race to the bridge. A mammy wagon would come thundering down the hill at the opposite side and you had little time to decide if you could make it across the bridge in time, or not. If you did, the mammy wagon would pull into the steep rocky edge of the road and one would see a big smile with flashing teeth and a raised thumb. Good sports.

These were quiet weekends, there was nothing to do but sleep and go for a swim in the river. Still, a servant would gently tap the door every evening with the whispered question: “At what time shall I knock you, Sir?”

Along that beautiful stream I was reminded of the slave trade. Near to a jetty, looking down into the water, one saw a dark heap which proved to be a mountain of empty bottles. My wife made several dives and came up with some ten of them. It cost her a bloody nose because she had to make dives of  more than five meters. Square bottles, tapering down towards the bottom. The names of Dutch distilleries pressed into the dark glass. Hoytema & Co. Culemborg, v. Marken & Co., A.C.A. Nolet Schiedam, African, Boll & Dunlop Rotterdam. Dutch gin. Silent witnesses? Was this the location of a slave trading station?

Today, one can still buy these bottles in Nigerian drugstores, in miniature, attractively packed in small cartons with colourful advertisements of the health benefits of the “Elixir” or “Medical Compound” which the Dutch gin is still claimed to be. Its magic persists.

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