anghara: (africa)
So, TiVo taped a classic weepie for us - "Out of Africa". Just finished watching it - and wept, again. The acacia trees against sunsets that only happen in these skies, the sweeping vistas of hundreds of gazelles or thousands of flamingoes taking off from Nauru, or the a single stately elephant or pair of lions.

I wish I didn't get the feeling of watching history, something long gone, something that only still exists in memory and dream.

I was ten when I first set foot in the Dark Continent, ten years old, a child whose mind and spirit were wide open, and that place left a stamp on both of them. I know that there is also filth and death and disease and corruption and bitter poverty and tribal rivalries and constant suspicion and aggression and greed and arrogance and edge-of-catastrophe. All that, yes. But beyond that, there's the memory of vastness and ancientness and beauty that stabs at the heart with something that is almost exquisite pain. There is the smell of the frangipani trees in the twilight, and the sound of cicadas in the heat of the day when the air shimmers with the noise and the heat-mirages and the shadows themselves are hot and sultry and the sun has weight and sits coiled on the shoulders like a living thing. There is the purple of the jacarandas and the scarlet of the flame trees and the bougainvillea, and the golden waves of the savannah grasses, and the rough gray of ancient tree bark, and the red earth of Africa. There is the endless sky with its jewel-coloured sunsets. There's the danger of snake, or crocodile, or mosquitoes that carry diseases which leave you shaking and sweating in the night. There are the bright beautiful stars in the night, closer and sharper than anywhere else on earth. There are the bright vivid smiles that break in chilren's faces; There is an innocence there, as well as an ancientness that is almost beyond understanding. There is the fear and the glory and the beauty and the dream of it all.

And I was very young when it was all handed to me to absorb. And I may have missed some here and there. But what I got, I still carry, and there are times during movies like "Out of Africa" that I sob helplessly when I watch it all unfold before me and the memories all start stirring.

A long time ago I wrote an essay about leaving "shadow selves" behind in places where I've been. I know there is one always back on the shores of the Danube, my beloved river, watching over the town where I was born. And I know there is one - or perhaps more than one - roaming the hills and plains of Africa, walking with the elephants at sunset, drifting through the red hills of Swaziland or sitting on the edge of Table Mountain at night kicking my heels against the side of the cliff and watching the lights of Cape Town twinkle a long way below. Shadows that carry the heat and the light and the memory of Africa within them.

Shadows that make me weep when I remember the places which they guard.
anghara: (Default)
Well, no. I'm not Karen Blixen.

But every now and then the nostalgia bites, oh, how it bites...

We just got done watching the pilot for a new TV show called "Life is Wild". It's... kind of... feeble, really. The storyline ranges from the improbable to the patronizing to fake-pathetic. I've looked the thing up on the internets, later, and it's been described as an African edition of "7th Heaven", which is the sort of saccharine syrupy preachy nonsense that [livejournal.com profile] rdeck and I were almost literally tearing our eyes out with rusty farm implements rather than watch - and yes, there is a lot of that in it. Take a nice but dysfunctional family from "civilization" - Papa the vet who wants to Do Good; Second-Wife-Mama who used to be a high-powered Manhattan divorce lawyer but is now gung ho to restore and run a run-down safari lodge operation; Sainted Late Lamented First Wife Mama whose family's "ancestral" lodge this is, and whose borderline alcoholic father still snoozes his afternoons away on the falling-down porch; mix'n'match kids from two marriages, "his and hers and ours" - a pretty blonde teen queen who bemoans the lack of MySpace, a rebel without a cause bad boy who wanted to get his lip pierced back home in good old New York and who is the cause they are all there (and much angst is hung thereon), a precious and sensitive younger brother who is also idiot enough to wander off into the bush by himself causing the entire family to scare off after him, and a younger girl who is precious enough to be afraid of bears and tigers and monsters outside when the animals howl (and who is reassured that there aren't any bears or tigers in Africa, but then says, "but you didn't say anything about the monsters!"

Throw in the Big White Boss who is running the hugely successful lodge next door (and is slated to be the villain of the piece, you just know it), his two perfect children who seem to have stepped straight out of the casting pool at MGM Starlets Incorporated, and a couple of black characters who appear to be poised for a career as Token Native Sidekick and/or Temporary Romantic Interest (at least as long as the AMerican teens are there anyway and to be tearfully waved goodbye to, no doubt, in the final episode after a year of living dangerously, as it were).

Oh, it's a soapie. A YA soapie, at that.

But, oh. Africa.

I sat there watching the spreading acacia trees over the waving golden grasses; I watched vivid sunsets paint themselves over the sky; I listened to the orphaned lion cub's incessant chatter and remembered the one that I was once deeply privileged to be able to hold in my lap (and yes they DO talk all the time). And I'm suddenly missing it, the wide skies, the veldt, the beasts of woods and plains, the great herds of impalas, the stately elephants, the giraffes, the cheetahs, the lions.

It gets under your skin, Africa does. And stays there. And every now and then that part of itself that it leaves within you makes you strain to hear distant drums, or a lion grunting in the purple twilight, or the rain coming down in tropical sheets from the sky. The smell of it, the smell of dust and sweat and animal musk and raw red earth and the delicate scent of the acacias. The colours of it, the purple jacaranda trees and the scarlet flame trees and the brittle golden yellow of the savannah and the crimsons and molten golds of the sunsets. The sounds of it, the whisper of wind in the dry grass, the scream of an animal, the laughter and chatter from the marketplaces where the women gather, carrying half the world in a massively unbalanced bales of stuff on their heads, often apparently packed with a degree of slipshod carelessness that makes you want to run behind them with a safety net to catch escaping items which somehow all stay put in their place.

I didn't have a farm in Africa. But I had three houses there, lived in them, grew up in them, left them all behind. And sometimes I still miss them and the beautiful, powerful, wounded, astonishing, brave, corrupt, wide-horizon'd continent on which they still crouch, giving other families, other children, a sheltering roof.

Forgive me while I go and dream of drums tonight.
anghara: (Default)
[livejournal.com profile] rdeck just sent me a link to this article:

http://www.salon.com/travel/feature/1999/07/28/africa/print.html

The gist of it is that the author, Wendy Belcher, has made a study about the opening lines of books written about Africa, and has found that..."Most travel books about Africa open with the author alone, carried along by some vehicle, looking down over some landscape and feeling anxious."

The books she quotes range from the tail end of the 19th century and range on through Evelyn Waugh ("They were still dancing when, just before dawn on October 19th, 1930, the Azay le Rideau came into harbour at Djibouti (Evelyn Waugh, "Remote People," 1931)), Alex Shoumatoff ("The plane got into Kinshasa at three in the morning (Alex Shoumatoff, "In Southern Light," 1986)), Mark Hudson ("The plane flew low over the Mauritanian desert. One could pick out the routes of ancient dried-up rivers cut into the eternity of mountainous, uninhabitable rock. But at this height it all looked reassuringly small, like a child's excavations on a beach ... It rapidly became dark, and soon only a ribbon of pink separated the blackness of the sky from the blueness of the haze over the earth, into which we descended as though into an abyss (Mark Hudson, "Our Grandmothers' Drums," 1989)), and, finally, herself ("A wave of wet heat swept over me. It pushed by, pungent with asphalt and ocean and greenness. I swayed and clutched the metal railing. Its coolness did nothing to mute this sensation: the warm air was amniotic fluid, and in it I was moving back into something both forgotten and deeply known. Looking up as I descended the steps, I could see the terminal across the shimmering airstrip (Wendy Belcher, "Honey from the Lion," 1988)).

Sometimes books about Africa open with expectations of trouble, or in the midst of some sort of trouble, or the sigh of the White Man's Burden, or the recoil of the White Man's Revulsion (usually triggered by dirt and poverty and disease, the likes of which more often than not exist back where the visitor just came from, only not in places where can see them or chooses to look). But not, apparently, very often. Hemingway is an outlier, with an opening set in a hunter's hide - surprisingly, with the hunting safari being what it is (or was) for Africa, there aren't all that many other books taking the same opening line. But the vast majority, it would seem, still open with the author on some conveyance dependent on his century (ship, in the early accounts, and then increasingly airplane), just landed or about to land on African soil, and worried.

Okay, I had to do it.

My own "Houses in Africa" was sitting there on my shelf, taunting me. I couldn't QUITE remember how I'd begun it, but I was almost certain that I did it with an airplane, feeling anxious - so I picked it up to find out.

BOth right and wrong, as it happens.

If you count the beginning as the beginning, then the book opens with a prologue called "Here Be Dragons", and the prologue's first paragraph goes like this:

A friend once told me that the difference between the two of us was the fact that I build nests, and she was happy to live out of suitcases. Back in 1973, I thought my nest was invincible. I knew where I belonged, cosy in my world; I had the quiet routine of my days, a clutch of 'best friends' at school, grandparents with whom my relationship was one of mutual adoration. I was ten years old... and with very little warning the world I had built was about to come to an explosive end.

So far, so good - no airplanes.

But then we hit the real beginning, Chapter 1. And we get:

The air smelled odd. The tarmac of the airport was warm even through madly inappropriate winter shoes. And the sky... the sky looked strangely painted, as thought torn from a work of art, and it was altogether too big. The horizon stretched endlessly, shimmering in the distance, and the big sky was everywhere, vivid, blue, dotted with cotton-wool puff clouds.

My family landed at the Lusaka International Airport towards the end of October, wearing all the paraphernalia the Northern Hemisphere winter demanded. What we discovered in Africa was the balmy air of tropical summer - and the fact that our luggage, containing any possible changes of clothing more conducive to our new climate, had not arrived with us.



EEEK. Airport. Anxiety. GUilty, guilty, guilty.

But, see, our friend Wendy talks about "travel books" to Africa - and that presupposes, well, travel. When making rabbit stew, it makes sense to first catch your rabbit - and if you're writing a travel book to a new place, or a memoir-of-the-outsider (which is what I wrote), it makes a great deal of sense to kind of ARRIVE at the place you're going to be writing about before you start writing about it. These are all, by definition, outsiders who are coming in - Wendy Belcher bemoans the fact that no books she found started in the midst of a weding, or a meal, or a mosque - all facets of the complicated African tapestry of life. But all of those things, by that very definition, are kind of part of the fabric of life, implying a continuity of existence, implying that the person writing them would not be an outsider at all but rather somebody who is acclimatised to the place and the time and the people and exists within those experiences. A "native" as it were, someone born in a place and growing up in a place, someone familiar with the geography and the culture and people that surrounds them, would not be writing a "Travel book", not in the sense that Wendy is talking about. It's a whole new genre. Karen Blixen began her own famous book with "I had a farm in Africa", but even she recounts travels to and from the place. We white folks, and unless I'm simply not seeing it I don't think that Wendy found many, or indeed ANY, black writers to quote in her article, can assimilate deeply into the African mythos, can accept it all, can take it in, can practically join tribes and live by tribal rules - but it isn't us who penetrate Africa, it's Africa who lets us in. There's a difference. And even given that an irritating piece of grit in an oyster can produce an actual peral, the fact still remains that the pearl was created to protect the oyster and not to prettify grit. What we who go to Africa take from her is mother-of-pearl accreting on our gritty selves, what we perceive as Africa's precious gift is still only a self-defense mechanism, and once the pearl is removed from the oyster it is not a treasure lifted so much as an irritant removed. This realisation - that there are places that you can sink into completely and think you know and understnad and are utterly accepted by in return but which, when you leave them, show no traces of your passing - can be a deeply humbling one.

And in order for any such outsider to write a book about Africa, he or she needs to arrive there from somewhere else.

And as far as my own memory is concerned, I still remember my ten-year-old self being cowed by the size and scope of that sky. I had caught my rabbit, in a manner of speaking, without even realising that I held it - it would be decades later that the book "Houses in Africa" would be written, but the memories were there, and they were incredibly, almost frightenigly, vivid when I started to write them down.

It began with my setting foot on African soil. It began in ignorance and innocence. It began with a blank page. Perhaps that is the best place, maybe the ONLY place, to begin.
anghara: (Default)
Unlike Isaac Dinesen/Karen BLixen, I didn't. Not quite. But I spent 20 years of my life there, and a part of me will never stop loving the place - its wildness, and its beauty, and the paradox of its unearthly and sometimes cynical antiquity interweaved with an utter childlike purity of spirit. The Africa of even my generation, never mind any that came after, is fast disappearing - the plains of the Serengeti are far from the glory they once were, the elephant herds are shrinking, the lions are becoming more and more interbred and are beginning to vanish, the endless herds of zebra and impala and wildebeest are no more - but somehow it all clings on, enough for pictures like these to be possible:

http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/read.asp?forum=1021&message=15034733
http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/read.asp?forum=1021&message=15042113
http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/read.asp?forum=1021&message=15082464

(they've been formatted to fit the forum, click on each image to reveal its full power)

You see, to most people these are dream. To me, they are memory.

Bless your dust, Africa. You are beautiful.

May 2009

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