Posted by: theodorecosmosophia | October 25, 2009

“Africa”

Zimbabwe 1998

I have no idea why I went to Africa.  There were many reasons I could give, but none would be sufficient, or completely honest.  In truth, it mostly had to do with the stories that swirled around in my blood, waiting to find the space in which to be given birth.  Whatever the reason, I am amazed to ponder the fact that, 60,000 years after leaving her, I returned to write these words.

She seemed to me to be as far away as one could get.  And that was surely what I sought.  It was not so much a looking-for-something as a running away—running away from the comfort of the modern world, from that with which I was most familiar. I rode on the clouds in a mighty plane, tossing my books down into the Big Sea, unaware that in those depths ghosts of the Middle Passage were passing silently below.

I woke up each day at dawn with the cows, their normal docility interrupted by the agony of being milked.  Momentarily, the workers would come, the women singing, the men laughing, the sweet smell of cow dung, morning tea and Eucalyptus—they, like other invasive colonies, had been brought in by foreign aid workers to control soil erosion, but greedily sucked the moisture from the earth—these smells wafting into our tin-roofed hut.  The morning mist gently burned away, leaving a cool dew in the grass.  I would sit outside with my fruit, looking out across the misty valley, toward Mozambique in the East.  The mist seemed to come from there, although I knew it did not.  I often wondered if this were the same mist Moses had seen, many years before.  His had been a mist that had called him away from Africa.  This mist seemed to call me back.

I would walk down to the main road early each day past a small pre-school.  The children knew me—there were few whites in the area—and would call out my name mellifluously as they played: “Good morning, Teddeeeeeeee!”

I answered them in Shona: “Mangwanani.”

This never failed to make them laugh.  Every morning I paused to look at the huge mural on the side of the school, with the Shona proverb written on it:

MWANA NDI AMAI

“The child is the mother”

My days in Africa were spent walking.  My partner, Maxwell, and I were given the task of teaching groups of women to read and write.  It was absurd, really. These women were often much older.  They had raised children and survived wars.  They grew enough food out of the parched, dusty, rocky earth to feed large families without the benefit of state welfare, irrigation or chemicals.

Their umbilical chords were buried in the African soil.  And I had come to teach them.

Maxwell had left school in the eighth grade when his parents had died.  I never asked how.  But he was as knowledgeable as his bosses.  And far wiser.

“Africa has many problems,” he told me, “but forgetting is not one of them.”

During the second to last week I worked in Zimbabwe the price of bread tripled overnight.  There were strikes and riots in the cities.  Mugabe was condemned by the West.  The West was condemned by Mugabe.  In the bush, the earth cracked in the dry air as the sun continued to beam down, day after rainless day.

The Baobab trees were unmoved.

Mozambique had finally gotten hold of me and I headed across the border.  There was little there but dust.  One-legged land mine victims begged on the side of the road alongside children, mumbling the only English word they knew: “please.”  There were no buses, so I had to hitchhike.  I climbed into the back of a flatbed truck and rode from the mountains of Manicaland down into the coastal plains.  Ragged men from this land—“the poorest nation on Earth”—smiled and shared their fruit when I told them I was an American.

The Africa I sought is perhaps the most terrifying place imaginable the modern human.  It represents a past that is neither Edenic nor savage.  The elusive moment of creation never happened.  We were always being created, and still are.  But it was in those rolling savannahs and among the great predators that we emerged.  Our minds developed to find new ways to capture our prey and elude our predators; our legs grew long and straight to walk long distances across those plains.  The grasses and the cats and the herds of Africa gave birth to us.  Indeed, they are not much different from us at all.  It is insufficient to say we came from mere dust, just as it is insufficient to say we were created by the gods from above.

The dust itself is divine.

On my final night in Mozambique, I left the bar late at night to find that a storm had come in from the sea, the first rain I had seen in months.  My flimsy little tent had filled with water.  I took what I could salvage out of the tent and went to the only sheltered place still open, the bathroom next to the bar.

And finally, in a dark bathroom, in the poorest country on Earth, it happened.  I remembered, at that moment, through the rain dripping through the leaky ceiling, blended with my own tears, telling my own, unborn child: “You are from Africa.”

And after 60,000 years of gestation, I gave birth to a story, my story.  For the first time, I began to write for no other reason than the joy of feeling I must.

I wrote the following:

I have no idea why I went to Africa.  There were many reasons I could give, none would be sufficient, or completely honest.  In truth, it mostly had to do with the stories that swirled around in my blood, waiting to find the space in which to be given birth. Whatever the reason, I am amazed to ponder the fact that, 60,000 years after leaving her, I returned to write these words…

Mozambique, 1998

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Responses

  1. […] From “Africa“, Originally Published in Handprints on the […]

  2. […] first journey to Africa, had been my own rite of passage. (You can find more on this trip in “Africa” from Handprints on the Womb).  After working for many months in an adult literacy program […]


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