Heart of darkness?

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).

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9 Comments

      1. Back in my military days I had a friend whose philosophy of “No Guts – No Medal” would often emerge, usually when someone was trying to talk us into something spectacularly stupid and/or dangerous.

        I’m old enough now to realize that he was probably out of his fucking mind, but there you have it. Sometimes those are the ones we wind up hanging out with and whom you can later blame for — well, spectacularly stupid and/or dangerous decisions. I’ve long since blown past the part of my life wherein SDA/OS stuff has more than a distant appeal.

        Now that I think of it, this may be more related to being too old and ragged to do it anymore than to a late onset of common sense. Poe-tay-toe, Poe-tah-toe. It all comes out the same.

        Anyhow, no Africa for me in my serenely sedate present, either.

        As to the “Heart of Darkness”, reacting to deep cultural differences and alien lands of “The Other” is another expression of the tribe/herd instinct. Its simplest expression is “I fight with my brother, my brother and I fight together against our neighbor, my brother and I and our neighbor fight together against the stranger”.

        In short, the further distant from someone we are along any dimension, cultural or spatial, the weirder and more dangerous they seem.

        For example, we USAians tend to have genuinely positive or fond feelings for Aussies and to a lesser degree, Euros, with that positive/fondness index falling off rapidly from there. By the time we’re churning upriver in Africa everything is as mysterious as (and only slightly less dangerous than) Mars.

        So, no Africa tours — but I’ve always wanted to visit Australia, particularly as I’m a desert-rat oriented sort anyhow. I like deserts and long distances and camping under huge skies, all of which Australia purportedly has in spades.

        But on the other hand, so far as I can tell, practically every single thing in Australia is out to kill you in a some more-or-less horrific or epic fashion. I haven’t a clue whether that’s actually true or (probably) not but it’s tempered my desire to camp-tour the Outback in about the same way as your eyeball worms seem to have informed your safari, and guns and demons color feelings about the complex weirdness of ‘Merca.

        Turns out, in fact, that the “Heart of Darkness” doesn’t have to involve the Congo River at all and the drums are mostly a panicked heart pounding in one’s ears…

      2. You put the herd instinct thing really succinctly. As for Oz, I’ve always found it weird that denizens of a country with bears and big cats and rattlesnakes are afraid of our fauna. I encounter black snakes regularly at my place but they’re pretty chilled. Nothing else to worry about. Mind you it’s not the outback. I’m not super keen on crocodiles. But yes, you put my feelings about Africa in a nutshell.

  1. We Americans are told that Australia is the scary place! Sharks and various strange animals, draconian lock-down policies, and a population deprived of its firearms. Mandatory voting on top of that! Yet my brother and his newlywed wife spent their honeymoon in Australia, apparently without ill effect. So I guess it can be done.

    Right now, I don’t have a car, and don’t have the money to travel anywhere but work. But if I had the money and time, I would certainly travel to Africa. For one thing, I have family in Johannesberg, and former students in Kenya. I’m more keen on going to north Africa (which I know more about), but would go anywhere, really. My parents went on safari in Kenya, and had a cheetah climb into their car and sit with them awhile. They’ve also been to Egypt. But they are hardly risk-loving folk, and it was all fine—including the cheetah.

    You know what’s truly scary? The tedium of a tedious job, like mine. The prospect of spending the rest of my life chasing hospital bills is scarier than anything in Africa.

    1. God yes. Had a tedious job, no issues with hospital bills since Australia has universal healthcare, but still… Now I live off my meagre super and can do what I like within reason. Work you don’t like is a grinding taskmaster that takes the joy and creativity out of life.

      1. I was, for 26 years, an academic–a philosopher. That job had its tedious side (dealing with university admin), but on the whole was extremely satisfying. I had to resign my position after I discovered a fraudulent grading scheme at my university that the university administration wanted covered up.

        Getting another academic job was nearly impossible, so I went into the only other thing I know, health care. I spent eight months working in an operating room, but couldn’t make a living wage. So I went into hospital finance. Part of the reason I went into it was to see, in detail, what people meant when they say that American health care is expensive due to high administrative costs. I had heard this said over and over, but didn’t really understand what it meant, or how universal health care would solve it. Now I do.

        The very thing that makes my job tedious is what makes American health care so expensive. The billing/receiving process is much, much too complicated, and is completely divorced from the clinical side of things. The job is so tedious that the only satisfaction I get out of it is in getting a better understanding of the pathologies of our healthcare system. That is something, but it’s cold comfort at 6 am when the alarm goes off and I have to get up and head out to the train.

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