Travelling by leisurely liner down the West coast of Africa in the early 1960’s, it would have been hard to picture the backwardness of the continent with which the new leaders were wrestling, and the unrest, political upheavals, and above all tribal feuds which characterised that struggle. The climate on this coast is warm but pleasant, as balmy sea breezes blow in from the Atlantic, and one is spared, at least up to Nigeria, the heavy rains, heat and humidity usually associated with Africa. The coast is more like an extension of Morocco, only this time with untrodden beaches fringed with palms, and boisterous Atlantic rollers replacing the tideless Mediterranean.
The coastal belt is moreover wide open to Western influences, as trade and commerce pours in and out of its ports. The French have left a visible imprint on Dakar, the beautiful capital of Senegal, whose wide boulevards and imposing public buildings bear witness to the enlightenment of their former French-educated leader President Senghor. Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, also has some impressive buildings, and shows many signs of the French heritage under the leadership of President Houphouët-Boigny, who has steered a moderate, stable course for many years. Of course there are tribal differences as in the rest of Africa, but these were not immediately apparent way back in the 1960’s. They were also muted further South in Liberia, where long-standing enmity exists between the tribes around the capital Monrovia and the interior, but where in those days President Tubman reigned unchallenged over his country’s destinies. But there were none of those prestigious buildings of the French zone on Monrovia’s waterfront. Only a quaint old-world row of wooden shacks housing shops, storerooms and cafes reminiscent of a Middle West settlement of the 18th century, a reminder of the American origins of the first Negro settlers. Coming to the countries formerly under British rule, both Ghana and Nigeria were obviously much wealthier, and more prosperous, and showed it, from the Gold Coast tribal chieftains displaying the well-to-do status by the amount of gold on their head-dress, robes and staffs, to Ghana’s well-endowed and commercially powerful market mammies and the bustling emporia, clubs and restaurants of Lagos.
Tiny Togo and Dahomey, the former a German colony up to the end of the First World War and then French until independence, the latter previously under French rule, fall between these two rival giants, and owe part of their significance to their strategic position as a buffer between the two. Much poorer than both, they nonetheless succeeded in keeping up, in their coastal capitals, a veneer of European standards and life-style. The seafront of the Togolese capital Lomé, otherwise a palm-strewn beach washed by Atlantic rollers with a modest pier jutting out into the sea for unloading the lighters, was at the same time remarkable for its Roman Catholic cathedral, the President’s palace, modern government buildings, and the Benin Hotel, while further into the town the new Independence Square fulfilled a useful function long after the Independence celebrations by providing bright arc lighting for the droves of eager students flocking their after nightfall to study on the edge of the curb. For none of their homes would be lit adequately for them to study.
The picture was very different as one left the coast and moved North into the interior. Rough roads, thick jungle alternating with extensive areas of scorched skeletons of trees caused by the pernicious habit of burning down the vegetation to provide a poor arable soil, and needy, backward villages characterised most of the 600 mile journey to the frontier with Niger. After miles of this torrid landscape still reeking from the acrid smoke, we would arrive at the next Kabrai or Chokossi village, a modest collection of round straw huts enclosing a dirt square, in which the women, nude to the waist, still pound their meal in huge wooden pestles while the children scramble around amid the colonies of mangy dogs. The luckier ones found their way into the unassuming townlets which straddle the main artery to the North, or installed themselves in small communities, half cave dwellers, half living in straw huts, on the rocky hillsides of Central Togo and Dahomey. Drinking and African dancing were their main distractions from the harsh realities of their life, and very frenzied it all was. Seizing on any pretext for an orgy, the funeral of a very aged village woman, for instance, they would turn the children out of the home, and for days throw themselves into drinking and wild dancing, urged on by the pressing non-stop beat of the drums. Frenetic, totally abandoned to the hypnotic power of the beat, the whole village would dance in perfect step, responding as if by electric impulse and changing step and direction with every change of the rhythm. Until from sheer exhaustion they would drop where they danced, to stay there until they had slept it off. The children were left to fend for themselves, and during one of our stays at the local guest house, naturally made a beeline towards the hurricane lamp throwing out its powerful light into the dark night. When asked about their life, they all made a point of expressing a dread of snakes. For unlike Europeans or their more cautious elders, they had no boots to protect their feet, and gave no time for the snakes to get away as they ran barefoot on the leaf-covered jungle pathways, looking for firewood or the odd game. Some tribes seemed to find pleasure in dancing on hot coals in ritual, ancestral fire-dancing rites, a pastime which the Roman Catholic missionaries did nothing to discourage, but tolerated even during their own religious festivals. A significant indication of the Roman Catholic Church’s tolerance and benign perseverance, which enabled them successfully to carry their mission to the furthermost regions of Togo and Dahomey.
The final destination of our long treks was always the Dahomey game reserve on the border with Niger, a vast area of savannah, the beauty and overpowering stillness of which it is impossible to convey. A humble but well-stocked hunting lodge run by a French couple catered for all our needs. From the security of the lodge we could listen to the roar of the big game on their pre-dawn hunt, and to its comfort we would return before nightfall, to a feast of venison served with French wine and other incongruous French delicacies. The cold, exhilarating air of the jungle dawn would greet us as we set off on the day’s expedition, and as the light grew stronger, we would catch glimpses through the tall parched grass and scrub of herds of wildebeest, monkeys and gazelle, small groups of ugly warthog, or the odd lion slinking nonchalantly away, indifferent to us after his dawn feast. By midday the sun would be beating down overhead and it would be too hot to continue. It was time to seek the shade at the edge of the lake and picnic, watching as we did so the lazy antics of the hippopotamus as they wallowed in the deep water, rising only occasionally to look at us and give us an indolent, disdainful snort. A mantle of somnolent silence would descend on the jungle, broken only by the shrill call of a solitary bird. The hushed stillness would remind us how remote and isolated it all was, far away from the more equable climate and day to day bustle of the coastal belt.
The colonisers originally created the West African states in their present form by cutting out strips of territory with artificial frontiers running arbitrarily inland from the coast. They took little account of ethnic boundaries, but simply absorbed the tribes which happened to be within their borders, so that some tribes were split in two, while others were incorporated willy-nilly with tribes who were their traditional enemies. This has caused much unrest and feuding since independence, as the African’s first loyalty is still to his tribe, and he has not yet fully replaced it with the higher loyalty to his country. Togo is no exception. The dominant tribe on the coast are the Ewe, a race of astute businessmen and women, to which President Olympio belonged, whereas the interior as far as Niger is inhabited by a variety of other tribes. The most important are the Kabrai, a race of diligent and thrifty farmers who made good mercenaries for the French Army. They had no say in government, but were kept at arm’s length and dispossessed by the ruling Ewe. Herein lay the roots of President Olympio’s overthrow and assassination.
His criminal, cold-blooded murder was a disaster of the first magnitude for Togo. He was a leader of great presence, determination and sagacity who dominated the life of his country, a man of towering stature ranking with the greatest West African leaders. Trained in business and economics by the United African Company, he was who laid the foundations of independent Togo’s future economic advancement. He pursued an enlightened pro-Western policy which provided a solid base for his country’s stability. He was friendly and approachable, and open to advice from Western sources of technical aid, the inevitable consequence of which was to have everyone vying with everyone else to provide more aid.
Except for the work of the U.N. Special Agencies, the aid programmes had a strong flavour of self-interest in them. Being non-political, the U.N. programme was perhaps the one closest tailored to Togo’s needs. The WHO provided doctors at the Government hospital and carried out an effective campaign of malarial eradication, while the FAO taught methods of intensive cropping and improved ways of traditional fishing. The Israelis, to counter Egyptian and Arab infiltration into West Africa, were strongly represented by Army officers whose main contribution seems to have been to teach the kibbutz system of farming to the brightest pupil. The course was to last two years, at the end of which the young aspiring farmer was to be installed, with his new wife and a few animals, on a small holding, on land given to him by the village headman. The latter, however, resented the appearance on his fiefdom of anything like modern methods, which would challenge his undisputed hold on the village, and refused to surrender any land, or at best only those strips impoverished by years of soil erosion. And so the scheme failed, although no doubt the training was worthwhile in itself. The Americans concentrated on road building and similar projects likely to require heavy equipment, and also made valuable contributions by teaching rural development techniques such as the drilling of artesian wells. The Germans set up a model dairy farm away from the tse-tse fly belt, a pilot project which however never took off because of difficulties with the Togolese workers, not least their dodging the clocking-in system. Their EEC partners the Frency eventually persuaded them, much against their will, to build a port at Lomé in recognition of their longstanding relationship before the 1st World War and the German cultural links which even now remain from that time. Commercially, it did not make sense, with a port at Cotonou in Dahomey only 50 miles away, and Takoradi within easy reach in Ghana, but each newly independent state, however small, had to have its own prestige project, which in the case of Togo became the port. The French had no such aid to offer, but limited themselves to the cultural work of the Alliance Française and to their traditional role of managing the highly profitable export-import business. They became the chief political advisers when after Olympio’s assassination his fellow Ewe and close relative Grunitsky assumed the heavy burdens of the Presidency. The Egyptians maintained a representation, but mainly so far as one could judge to balance off the Israelis, while the Russian Embassy seems to have been there only as a listening post, and if possible to forestall a Chinese Communist entry, for at that time both Communist powers were engaged in keen rivalry with each other for the attentions of the newly independent African states.
President Olympio had been insistent that we should teach his young intellectuals as much English as possible, and went out of his way to provide us with a suitable building, a well-constructed two-storey building occupying a commanding corner site. The Ministry of Works co-operated fully to renovate and modernise it, and soon we had on the first floor provision for a large library, a news room where the students could listen to the BBC World Service, and quiet rooms for study. The ground floor was transformed into an information section and Cinema holding 200 guests, for the projection of news and feature films on rainy nights. The shows were held outside on fine evenings, in what had once been a junk yard, but which much toil and perspiration turned into a garden, with a lawn of tough grass capable of resisting the tread of many feet, surrounded by rose beds and tropical shrubs and trees. The roses were hybrid tea or floribunda species flown in from Marrakesh. We bought the shrubs and trees, each charged at a shilling irrespective of their rarety, quality or eventual size, at Aburi botanical gardens near Accra, a superb collection of tropical flora, still painstakingly tended by devoted Ghanaian gardeners, which a dedicated English enthusiast had created way back in Victorian times, taking as his ideal model the Botanical Gardens at Kew. The trees we brought back from this gardener’s paradise were planted as saplings, no more than 2 or 3 feet high, but within months had shot up to their full height of 40 feet or so and were already bearing their clusters of tulip-like flowers or other exotic blooms.
The trouble was that the Togolese had no idea of the value of manure, for to them the camel dung was no more than fuel for their fires. And so it became necessary for me, and whoever cared to join me, to prepare the holes for the tree roots by heaping manure in them, stirring it up with the soil, then treading it down ready for planting, a bizarre spectacle which roused the curious onlookers to uncontrolled peels of ribald laughter.
The Library had not enough books, in spite of inheriting the Takoradi Library, the British Council allowance fell far short of the need, and so I turned to all the well-known booksellers for help. Their response was astonishingly generous, and soon the shelves were filled to capacity. Some students’ favourites were black with finger marks within weeks, and would be replaced by the munificence of the supplier, for instance the “Teach Yourself” series, and above all “Teach Yourself Nursing”, which proved to be the most popular with the young girl students both because of their aspirations, and more immediately and practically to tend the ailments of the family.
Sylvanus Olympio’s assassination was followed by a short period of extreme tension fuelled by the fear and confusion, and the now white-hot hatred between the Ewe and the Kabrai. Gradually, however, President Grunitzky, aided by a Kabrai Vice-President, succeeded in restoring order and calm. He relied heavily on the French in doing so, and soon a certain level of Togo’s former prosperity was restored, as trade and commerce returned to normal. On his death, he was succeeded by a Kabrai President, and so far as I can tell, the country now ticks over quietly, presumably enjoying the same commercial advantages as before, with the tribes pursuing their traditional ways of life, and with steady improvement from the efforts of the U.N. Special Agencies and all those who have given technical aid. Progress if slow will come about in the long run through evolution, for if one thing is certain, it is that their youth is fired with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a relentless drive for self-improvement, which will stand the country in good stead in the years to come.