Wednesday, October 04, 2006
The dark continent remains both heartbreakingly beautiful and filled with brutality
I have flown over Africa many times, and I am always overwhelmed by the vastness of its anonymity. Flying over the continent by night, it is dark. By day, often it is merely brown, and apparently empty - scared only by long lonely roads which seem to cut endlessly long skeletal lines across its back, like the scars on a whale. This is the one place - a great place - filled with so many situations we will never know about.
There is a reason, despite its darkness, despite its tragedy and brutality, that I, and others, love Africa. You will know what we mean when you come to Africa, and fill its heartbeat for yourself. Even from the runway, you may smell the accasia flowers, or hear the distant echoe of ancestors not 100 years old, but back to the dawn of our kind. For Africa, after all, is the only place that remains on the planet, where nature (and possibly our own nature's too) maintain the upper hand. Africa is many things, but it is not civilised.
A friend of mine from Cambridge, who was studying Zoology visited South Africa while I was in her country, and wrote to me of her disappointment. She described South Africa as filled with American accoutrements (McDonalds, KFC), and she was appalled at the proximity of the rich to the poor. Shackdwellers living close to the manicured gardens of suburbia, with their swimming pools and Mercedes Benzs.
Although I grew up in South Africa, and I ran amuck on our farm, tearing my shins against the long white needle thorns of the Accasia, I never had a sense of Africa until I went to wilder places, like Botswana. That may not be strictly true, because I think the tail end Africa's rift valley, the Drakensberg (the name means Dragon Mountains) haunted me more than any other mountains I've visited. The otter trail is one of my most vivid experiences as a child, and that was a mere week swimming across tea colored rivers pouring down through the East Coast, and pushing my young feet against the soft compost trails that wound around martian craggy cliffs. I'll never the forget the dolphins that met us, dancing in the open belly of waves, when we reached the sundried banana peel of beach at Nature's Valley.
But Botswana presents Africa at a different magnitude. It's a place where the myths of Africa truly manifest. It's a place where lions, hyena, elephants, wander through your campsite. I awoke one morning in Botswana to the thrill of a big elephant browsing mere metres from the tent. What a beautiful and wonderful sight first thing in the morning. I remember having to be cautious near the Chobe's riverbank, because of crocodiles. What a sense of life everywhere! I remember the mongooses (mongeese?), almost tame, scurrying around cheekily, pointing their intelligent eyes and twitching snouts at us before the baboons could make a nuisance of themselves.
Animals like warthogs, hippos and impala - you can stare at them all day. It's the little mongoose that makes you wonder - is it this little mammal that was running around with the dinosaurs, and managed to outwit and outlast those monsters, as the ice age engulfed first thousands of species, and then millions.
There has been some interest in Africa, of late. Movies like 'The Interpreter', and 'Rwanda', and 'The Constant Gardener'. There've been some cliched attempts to express Africa in 'Sahara' and 'Lord of War'. There are the classics, that reduce us to tears, like 'Out of Africa', or laughing hysteria like 'The Gods must be Crazy'. There are books about Africa: Bryce Courtney's The Power of One, and Mark and Dehlia Owen's international bestseller: Cry of the kalahari. All are mere reflections of a place that is too great to put into words, even if it is Hemingway's 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro'.
Tanzania is a country where the roads are giant muddy smears through impossibly dense jungle. All over concrete skeletons stand, surrounded by jungle. Someone brought a lot of money and motivation, but the jungle won.
Was it in a local hospital that I happened to notice a map of the world, emphasising malaria infestation in red, and almost the whole of Africa - a giant glob - bulged red, while small fragments of The-Rest-of-the-World had little dabs here and there.
Africa is the real world. Here there is human suffering on a scale comparable to nowhere else. Africa is reality, without spin. It's also a showcase of nature, and in rare cases (like South Africa), man has been allowed to put down a delicate footprint. Cape Town is one of the world's most magnificent cities - magnificent because of the mountains and ocean currents that roar and swirl around the city. And also magnificent because this country inspired a leader, like Nelson Mandela.
Africa is also Sudan, where Christians are crucified, and lava lakes impersonate hell.
Somalia's Mogadishu is a place filled with gangsters and warlords. These people are not pushovers - to think so is to make the mistake of 'Black Hawk Down'.
Oil rich Nigeria is one of the most corrupt cesspools on the continent. Africa's dictators make Saddam Hussein seem like a good natured kindergarten teacher. Zimbabwe's Mugabe is Africa's lastest dictatorial work-in-progress.
Books like 'The Grass is Singing', 'Cry the Beloved Country', 'Long Walk to Freedom' - all echoe the same song of Africa. And each song is different.
Meryl Streep, as Karen Blixen in 'Out of Africa', reminds us of Africa's power to penetrate and touch us deeply, however 'civilised' we might be:
If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?
This is the power of Africa. To touch each and every person. To restore the soul, but not to heal it. Perhaps Africa tears at the heart, and reminds us not only that we are alive, but that so much life (and death) exists around us.
A long time ago a man sailed up Africa's mighty Congo river. It is said that if the power of this river is harnessed, Africa will be able to supply all its electricity needs, and be able to export the surplus to Europe. **Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness', documents this long ago journey into Africa:
**Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once--somewhere--far away--in another existence perhaps.
Africa is all these things. It does have a great, great heart of darkness. It's shores and fields and great cliffs and powerful forests churn with Gorillas and the wild. Africa is wild and unknown, still, in a world that pretends to be safe, and controlled and civilised. Even in Africa, a young child crouches over a candle, its feathery light threading over old typed words while the African wind holds its breath for a moment, for this child, in the African night.
*The so-called Inga Project. For more information visit:http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/inga.html