I’m afraid to go to Africa. Flies that burrow and rot, worms that come out your eyeball metres long, fish that swim up your piss and eat your urethra, if the big fauna don’t get you the little ones will. Cowardly, yes, and then there’s the people.
I like Africans (I like nearly everyone). They seem nice. However, I’ve just finished reading Paul Theroux’ The Lower River, and I realise that Africa, for me and perhaps other white people, has two faces. One derives from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – a brutal, festering jungle inhabited by savages (‘the drums, the drums!!!’) and steeped in misery. The other, a joyous, colourful land whose people strive against the vestiges of colonialism and demonstrate the kind of effortless virtues that the west has left behind – generosity, human warmth, the ability to dance and sing in public – against all the odds.
The Lower River is about a man who spends time in Africa as a youth and cherishes a nostalgic dream of the only time in his life when he was truly happy – as a teacher in a village school, in love with a local maiden. So – in his sixties, divorced – he goes back to the village only to find that the school is derelict, the local maiden grossly fat and aged by toil, and the villagers corrupt, cruel and enmeshed by greed and superstition. Sorta like The Wicker Man but in Mali.
But I also read (a few months ago) The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, in which a family of missionaries sets up in a remote village. While the deluded and controlling father tries to convert everybody to an irrelevant God, the villagers are unfailingly polite and helpful. Later one of the daughters marries an African and they fight bravely (but futilely) for democracy against the evil machinations of imperialist America. Africans, the moral seems to be, are much nicer than Europeans with their fancy cocktails and penchant for ordering everybody around.
I suppose the truth is somewhere in between. I had a Nigerian boyfriend once who got expelled from school for knifing a schoolmate. The kid, he explained, had stolen his lunch orange. Another Nigerian guy I knew believed, literally, in demons (an oddity in secular Australia,though probably common enough in the USA). One reads about the albinos for parts thing, and people whacking each other with machetes, and raping virgins as a cure for Aids…and then there’s all the stuff that one doesn’t read, that doesn’t get into the news, anywhere; how Mrs Z helps her elderly neighbour with the shopping and Mr Y teaches maths to orphans and Ms X helps with the food truck, and life goes on and people are people, same as anywhere, same desires and irritations and ordinary virtues.
Only they’re not, we’re not. We’re all specimens of homo sapiens, we bleed, we love, etc, but culture makes us strange to each other, and not just in a superficial way. We think differently about things, I believe, and thus, the land of sunsets and rhinos and rivers and women with unbelievable posture is dark to us, in a very real sense. Perhaps we, in the land of overstocked refrigerators and buffet religion and magic as entertainment, are also dark to them. And when we visit one another (or even go to stay) we’re each living in a kind of movie set, adapted to our varying perspectives but about as close to reality as old-style depictions of ‘The Wild West’.
What do you think?
And now for a free book promotion (including two of mine) that ranges from money management (!) to post-feminist dog collar fiction (‘Grumpy Billionaire’s Baby’ no kidding, and why couldn’t I have thought of the pen name Defiance Sand?). Not for me, but I did pick up My Dad is Dead and Other Funny Stories (if you’re upset by the subject, there’s always Broken From Parent Loss) and Fresh Air, Long Run and Other Tales (I might read it to my dog at bed time if she’s good).