The Peacock Mosaic

The Bridge at Mamfe 1958


It stretched ahead of us – a line of pale boards slung over a valley. Flimsy-looking ropes held the planks together and the whole thing had a makeshift look: more like a temporary walkway than a road bridge. John said the crossing was safe, that he’d checked it with the Road Supervisor in Enugu; but even so he suggested that I get out and walk across first so as to reduce the weight in the Landrover.

I got out to have a look, while he lined up to the bridge. A lush mix of palms, bamboos, ferns and wild bananas grew up from the sides of the gorge, filling the space. The air was very quiet and heavy – the land was waiting for the start of the rains – and even the cicadas and tree-frogs were stilled. A large bright butterfly, blue and purple, settled on the ground near me where there was a trace of moistness. Far below I could hear the sound of falling water.

It was hard to recognise myself here, with this young man I apparently hardly knew. I hated the heat, didn’t care for John’s colonial colleagues: and yet I was intoxicated by the Tropics. Africa. Who’d have thought I might fall in love with Africa? Two weeks ago I had been among the cool grey stones of Edinburgh, taking exams; six weeks from now I’d be back there.

But now I had to walk across this contraption, as if it were a pedestrian crossing. Did he know I didn’t like heights? He came forward smiling, his dark blue eyes bluer than ever.

‘Shall I come across with you?’

I said ‘No,’ more vehemently than I’d meant to. I couldn’t do it except on my own: if, that is, I could do it at all.

Until now we had been driving through scrub – abandoned farmland, noisy with monkeys, pie dogs. Children pushed ingenious wire toys here and there, absorbed in their play. Small groups of huts clustered along tracks that seemed to lead nowhere, and shrines of magical offerings stood slightly back from the road every mile or so.

But there, across the bridge, the road wound into a vaulted tunnel of soaring trees, hanging lianes, strangely coloured flowers glimpsed in the distance. A place worth getting to, even across this bridge.

‘I’ll get you started, then. OK’

‘Just for the beginning, perhaps.’

‘Take it slowly and keep looking ahead. You’ll be fine. It really is safe. Hold on to one side, but don’t lean on the rope, it’ll unbalance you.’

I hesitated for a moment, gathering up my strength, and as I did I heard soft footsteps behind us. A woman with a load of branches for firewood on her head was coming up at a fast walk; a baby was strapped on her back with a bright cloth and a child trotted close behind, balancing a jug of water on tight curls. They talked as they walked. The mother greeted us briefly, we stood aside and she crossed at speed. The child padded serenely after, chattering on as they crossed, her high voice echoing around the valley. The bridge gave slightly with their steps, so that they were always walking in a slight dip.

It was now or never. ‘OK. Off I go.’

Letting go of John’s hand I stepped forward and was on the bridge. The planks were smooth, and the bridge was as springy as I’d feared. My stomach clenched, and sweat ran down my back.

‘Just keep going, love. You’re doing fine.’

I hardly heard him. I was on my own in a state of terror, focused on the end of the bridge and the high forest on the other side. All I could do was keep going, and could only do that because pausing over the ravine would be worse. Time seemed to stop, holding me in this terrifying moment.

I stumbled. I expected to fall screaming, but it was in fact the change from planks to beaten earth. I was on the other side. I wiped my face with my skirt and bent down, dizzy and nauseous. Then I straightened up, breathing a new kind of air, and looked on down the road. Those trees! It was easy to think of a living cathedral.

The Landrover’s starter motor rattled, and John began to drive across, the wheels hidden in the deep dip that moved with him. As he came to the last few feet of the bridge, there was a small steepness to be overcome before the solid bank. He revved the engine slightly and for a moment the wheels slipped. My heart thudded, John grimaced and then he was safely on solid red earth. I got in beside him, and he reached over and kissed me.

‘That was something!’ he said with his self-deprecating grin.

And so we set off for Bamenda.

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