Africa · Books · Congo

A fumbling search for Africas

Sleep is eluding more and more, because of those devastating bats which are now no longer as darkly charming as they initially were, my first night here. I hate them and I’m thinking of calling the exterminator or climbing up the tree and throwing a mosquito-net over their branches so they can’t rest on them like the rabid maniacs that they are, folding their stupid little sticky wings over themselves like Nosferatu in his black coat. Yukeddy-YUCK! They’re blind, so why couldn’t they just be mute too?

So I spend my nights reading by the smelly petrol lamp and my shrinking candles until I doze in and out of sweaty sleep criss-crossed by the strangest dreams involving elephants and Tiffany stained glass bookmarks and reading the motley crew of books that line my four walls, compliments of dad’s shopping in used bookstores from Pasadena to Capetown.

I read about two books a day, now, and in this reading frenzy I read pretty much everything, like a termite burrowing through soft wood for sheer survival, and it’s amazing to me that I can actually digest the pages that I flip feverishly.

So yesterday I read “A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali” by Gil Courtemanche.

He was a French Canadian journalist in Rwanda and this is a book of fiction based entirely on true facts and real people whose names he hasn’t changed. It is beautifully translated by Patricia Claxton, because the only version I have is in English and not in the original French. The only shame of this is that the poetry of Paul Eluard, which occupies an important place in the book had to be translated, and it’s impossible to translate poetry. You just have to re-write it.

God that book was hard. It’s an Africa I have never really admitted to. One of semen and machetes, sweaty sex and butchery, and it’s incrediby graphic and traumatizing in both. I suppose if I could have put the book down, and processed that the information would scar me in some way, I really would have, but I just couldn’t put it down. I had to go deeper into the madness, the horror, the beast, the sex, the violence, the carnage, the holocaust. I hate reviewers, but they said that it was the most important book about Africa since “Heart of Darkness” and I just had to know what about it was that important. And frankly, it was so graphic that I was gripped. For me the best introduction to the book is the one Courtemanche himself writes in the first two pages where he relates how the novelist wrote the events that the journalist saw.

I can’t say I liked it. In fact, I would simplistically hate it if it wasn’t too simple an attitude. If it didn’t stir up so many complex emotions in me. I didn’t care for the writing because it was the simple, un-beautiful writing whose words doesn’t move, not simple in the Hemingway style, because that simplicity is eloquent. It was simple in the sense that it was a sort of a litany of acts, very gross violent acts and sexual acts, and a simplified, stick-figure tracing of complex historical events, even if I don’t know everything about the Rwanda massacres, I know it’s a lot more complicated than the simple interactions between the simplified characters.

And the people that gave the book rave reviews were people who’ve usually not set foot in Africa. Other people in places like New York or Paris who think “yes, to me that is what I think the place and the events were probably like, two thumbs up, mate!”

But I have to say it affected me, and shocked me, because I have witnessed much more watered-down version of some of the characters’ behaviours, and I have been around to hear some version of them recounted by people who lived through them.

I’ve always known of some of these things. The way that a certain class of white male expats treat and rape African women, sometimes for money, and sometimes not, the violence of the military, the rapes, the butcheries.

It’s as if, in my later years of growing up in the Congos, I sometimes saw the dark tips of these other faces of Africa rear their ugly head, warning of the darknesses beneath, sort of like the fins of sharks that dip in and out of hte dark waters, but never revealing the violent flesh-eating beast they are attached to.

I’ve always turned a blind eye to that reality because I didn’t want to dwell on it even though I always knew it was there, I didn’t want to write about it, I didn’t want to share that side of things. Ugly dark things.

And even when the fins raised through the waters, I had a choice to turn away and focus on other things, not spend time with certain people or in certain places where I would have been exposed to them at length and in depth.

When you write things down, you give them power. I would rather give power to things I know and things I’ve experienced. Thank goodness I haven’t experienced the things Courtemanche writes about.

I suppose that sometimes they need to be talked about, and I’m glad that people like Gil Courtemanche and Joseph Conrad do, because I certainly couldn’t.

In the face of this reality, AIDS, and reckless sex, and carnage and orphans, real-life troubles real-life tragedies that affect people’s lives, maybe my essays about people in flowing robes on the beach are childish, or innocent, or in denial.

But you know…I’m not really sure that they are.

This is something I was thinking about a few months ago and that I started talking about when I read Dan Eldon’s diaries. (I can’t remember when I posted that, but it was a while ago). He was a photojournalist in East Africa who died at 21 stoned in Somalia. He photographed the dark and the light side of Africa, reporting to the world events that needed to be broadcast and outraged over, and taking for himself snapshots that conveyed the beauty of people and places.

I think for people living in Africa, working in Africa, writing and shooting in Africa, there has to be a struggle inside, just like the one inside tortured Dan Eldon. A struggle that the juxtaposition of horrible events and unspeakable realities and beautiful people caused inside of us who know and care deeply about this complex multi-faceted place.

I suppose the book caused doubt within me. I don’t want to lie. I don’t want to show a white woman’s Africa that is blemish-free and perfect, like some natural Eden where the natives are pure. That’s not true, I know that this place is fallible and dangerous and real. But I don’t want to dwell in the mud, either. That’s not how you participate in building a better world.

But how then, do you straddle informing people about what they need to know, while not dwelling on it so as to make the information useless? And how do you keep a sensitive eye out for the beauty while not idealizing the country and the people?

I put down Sunday by the Pool in Kigali and sort of stunned, walked around in a daze, that evening, sweating. I picked up Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” and plunged in.

I think I got another perspective from this, and I’ve been turning the plages with anticipation and a restfulness that comes from reading someone who perhaps looks at the world with the kind eyes of a certain type of writer, closer to my sensitivities. Of course, he’s not writing about Central Africa, but he is writing about a place changing and about people in it, which is, in a simplified essence, what Courtemanche was doing in his corner of hell, and what I love to write about.

Steinbeck travels thoughtfully through America with his poodle, making thought-provoking observations and looking at everything with the opinionated eyes of someone who’s lived on this earth sixty years, but with the open mind of a man who’s educated enough to know things aren’t black or white, and even though he hates submarines, can find some place in his heart to look at them a bit differently than before after a conversation with a young officer on the deck of a boat, for example. That’s the kind of sensitivity I’m talking about. Firm but open-minded.

Anyway. He compares how he and a travel journalist guy went to Prague and got two completely different takes on the ancient city. He went with the gypsies and bohemians and the other guy read the maps and the histories. This is what he tells us to warns us about his book on America:

“For this reason I cannot recommend this account as an America that you will find. So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.”

That calmed me and I came to a peace with the pool in Kigali and my flowing robes on the beach.

There is a lot written about Africa from the point of view of white people. Not often do you have books from African writers like Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” a book of huge stature that really makes it and is widely read. Often it’s books or movies like “Out of Africa” “Nowhere in Africa”, “I Dreamed of Africa”, “Hatari”, “Born Free”. Works that sometimes idealize the continent a bit.

It is that sort of nostalgia I think is human and that Steinbeck addresses later in his book with a simple beautiful sentence: “What I am mourning is perhaps not worth saving, but I regret its loss nevertheless.”

I don’t much believe in nostalgia, and I don’t want to dwell on the dark side, and I want to stay away from idealization, so I have to think and work hard to find my voice, a voice that I can stand by, and not be ashamed to re-read later.

Maybe in digging to find that voice, I will come to a greater sense of peace, in my relationship to my only home, that I sometimes belong to but that never really belongs to me.

5 thoughts on “A fumbling search for Africas

  1. Growing up in south america, and visiting the united states so often really made me realize how 3rd world countries are perceived by 1st world countries… and as soon as someone would start attacking any of the southamerican countries i would just jump and defend chile, argentina, peru, bolivia, colombia, etc. with all my might… i hated the way “my” home was seen from the outside… but i now see that their opinions were based on real facts, they were true.
    I think that, like you said, it is harsh to realize that your home is not as beautiful and perfect as you make it. But the feeling of 1st world countries not being able to see the beauty, the warmth, all the positive and amazing things that come forth, and are a daily reality in those countries still hurts me…

    so even today, even though someone says something about south america that portrays one of its negative aspects.. i still feel that need to stand up for what i have learned to love.

  2. I think we all feel this way – a bit territorial – about where we grew up. The place where so many wonderful memories linger in our past. We certainly don’t want a foreigner to sully our memories, which we personalize to the entire nation or continent. Growing up in the States, I feel the same way when people who haven’t been to the States attack the U.S. (and isn’t that one of the world’s favorite pasttimes?). It’s more than crazy politics, narrow-minded people and violence. In fact, what country _doesn’t_ have all of the above?

    Do we need to ‘get over’ this feeling of attachment and defense – and be more global? Is that what Baha’u’llah means when he tells us to love humanity, not our country?

  3. About the issue of whether to focus on the positive or to be “realistic” and recognize and communicate the bad: Some one wise once commented that in fighting evil we become very well acquainted with it. Meaning, I think, that if we focus on our efforts on addressing the ills of society and bringing the healing message of the Faith to it, we don’t need to feel that we are ignoring other important things because we are not making special efforts to get to know all the evils out there. I think, for example, that in writing about people that do good work in the field development it would be natural to give a clear picture of the conditions and problems that are being dealt with. But it would be in a hopeful way. We need the other thing too, as you said, but we also need to know about all the things that can make us hopeful and inspire us in our own efforts.
    SRA

  4. I just finished reading the Poinsonwood Bible for the 3rd time. How apt that this is the topic that you chose to blog on. To me, Barbara Kingsolver has managed to take Africa and be honest, showing the beauty, the hardship, the complexities, and the pain, and write about it in such a way that you want to experience it, and even if you haven’t experienced it, you can lofe it for what it is and take the good with the bad, all while being a white woman writing about Africa.
    But what do I know? I’ve never been there either….yet.

  5. Thank you so much…so very much for commenting on this. I can’t tell you how hard it was for me to write that post. I erased it twice, changed my mind three times. I just didn’t think…oh will they like? will I sound stupid? am I wrong? I’m so scared of offending or coming off the wrong way that I never know…as they say in French…on which foot to dance on when it comes to issues like this. I really appreciate all your comments, from the top to the bottom of the Americas and through all your experiences with this same situation. It really does boil down to what difference can we make in our own small way not to repeat the shortcomings that we need to erase from this world so we can step forward in a healthy way. What can I do to not repeat negative patterns. What can I do to be a creative and positive influence. Or in the very least, what can I do to not destroy…

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