We don’t read a lot of good news about Africa. As I write this, and google “Africa —- News”, the top hits are:
• Convoy attack kills three children, 19 adults in Central African Republic… Bodies burnt in street….
• South Africa marks worst year in rhino killings…
• South African [mineworkers] strike at… platinum producers
• China and Japan scramble for Africa
These headlines are not representative of African reality. They’re certainly a far cry from the Africa I came to know when I lived there for two-and-a-half years in the early 1970s. To be sure, one of my earliest African memories is of being adrift — the first time I ventured outside of Nairobi’s tourist bubble — in a bewildering sea of black faces. But once I got to know Africans personally, it became clear, on one hand, that they were just people like everyone else, and, on the other, that they had ways of understanding themselves and relating to others that were distinctly African.
The links in the previous paragraph point you to some of what I mean by that, but they don’t tell you why I came to love Africa, and still think longingly of it forty years later. That’s what I’m going to do in this post.
Laughter. Wherever two or more Africans gather and converse, someone points out an incongruity and laughter rings out. It’s what I miss most about Africa. It brings a tear to my eye now to remember the good times I shared with others talking about whatever occurred to us, and enjoying our laughter. How is it that — with the relatively easy lives many of us live in Europe and North America — we seem to find less to laugh about than Africans, many of whom are dogged by hardships we can barely imagine? I don’t know the answer.
Hospitality. In the course of my research in Kenya, I conducted 120 in-depth interviews with small farmers, many of which turned into long conversations. Invariably, my research assistant and I would be invited to join the family around mama’s fire and offered tea, heavily fortified with hot, sweet milk — a cocoa-like drink that, in my considered opinion, is superior to English tea. Often the tea would be followed by a meal solid enough to pose a serious threat to my formerly svelte figure.
Such hospitality proved to be a very effective stimulant to conversation and laughter. It was clear that both the offer and acceptance of such hospitality were obligatory on both host and guest, and refusals, however polite, were not an option. Long conversations, filled with interesting anecdotes and observations, opened a world to me. In theory I should have eaten less, but I’m satisfied that, in trading my slender midsection for that world, I got a great bargain.
Kenya’s landscapes are neither more beautiful nor more majestic than Canada’s, but they have a flavour all their own: Mount Kenya, snow-capped in the pre-global-warming 1970s, the magnificent Rift Valley, forests, the high Kinangop plateau, arid lowlands, and the best fine sand beaches east of Lake Winnipeg — allowing, unlike Lake Winnipeg, year-around swimming.
Nyandarua cabbages. I must have a philandering Irishman in some unmentioned corner of my family tree, because I’ve always loved cabbages. In Nyandarua, they were as big as a man’s head and more solid than any I’ve seen anywhere else. In the market, the standard test of a cabbage’s fitness was to press it hard with your thumb. If there was any give at all, it was considered sub-standard.
Cosmopolitan Mombasa. In the rural highlands, a pale-faced interloper was always on display. Though we were greeted in a friendly manner and treated with kindness and respect, we drew eyes wherever we went. It made you feel like a museum exhibit. As a result, it was a relief to spend a few days at what publicists for Kenya’s President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, used to call a working holiday at the coast. Mombasa’s streets were populated by Arabs, Indians, Europeans and every kind of African. Whatever your skin colour, if you spoke Swahili you attracted no attention. A few days outside the museum case offered a welcome respite.
Someone will ask: If Africa is that wonderful, why are you living in Canada? The answer is simple: I belong in Canada. I reflect it and it reflects me. I will always love Africa and — between bouts of conflict and killing — admire it. But I am not African. The view of Africa that I reflect in my writings is that of a critical outsider who has taken the trouble to gain a serious understanding of his subject. It’s not definitive, but it is a point of view worth taking seriously.
Stay tuned for more posts about some of the things I learned in Africa.