I once said I would write more of Africa. I have found it hard to keep that promise. I lived upon that continent for a decade, in Central, East and also West Africa – working the civil wars that ravage the landscape and brutalize the people as power-hungry men with no care for their legacy or their community pretend to omnipotence. I have been gone now for more than a year, the dark continent’s scarred landscape and ravaged villages now firmly set in my rear-view mirror; and I have waited for nostalgia, which is a purification process wiping the experiences clean, sanitizing them to set them upon the mantle of our imaginations as beautiful reminders of what has been. But that nostalgia has not come.
I picked up “Out of Africa” in the hopes that this famous story of colonial Kenya would jog my memory, reminding me of what was and returning me to the glory days of my twenties and thirties when I fought the wars in Africa (oh not literally, I was seeking to end them, not perpetuate them – so I worked using tools of the human condition to attempt to animate and inspire lasting peace. Mostly I failed). And to be sure there is something; the powerful rains that sweep across the landscape; the silence of it all, even now in the days of information but especially then when there were no sounds but the village feasts late into the night after slaughtering a cow. The drums banging and reverberating in an eerie echo from the mysterious mountains above. But it is the sadness I can no longer abide – the desperation at a land with no hope.
And therein lies the rub. Africa never made it; that transition between tribal and modern; that move from empire to government by-and-for the people; the modernization of the economies that took most other regions of the world from small farms and watching the cows at night, to mass-produced widgets and on to a service economy. The pattern of ‘development’ which COVID has laid bare as wanting, leaving however the west wealthy enough to debate universal basic income as the leaders realize the workers are no longer needed, paid for by fiat money as the last refuge of hope in a hopeless world. No, Africa has stayed behind, with her wars and her ‘development programs’ and her small-farmer plots upon which the desperately destitute attempt to coax a maize shoot from a desiccated earth, trucking water and the tiny minnows from an overfished nearby lake drying and stinking before simply retreating to the camps – my main experience of Africa was the camps.
And this is a problem – for demographically, the world is changing. By the time my son is an old man, the world population will have peaked and receded – we will be 8 billion souls, most of them old — except 4 billion will live in Africa (along with the lion’s share of working young), where the wars will probably still burn.
“Out of Africa” is a book by Isak Dinesen about the experience of a European farmer in colonial Kenya – how she experienced the continent, her impressions of things she saw so foreign to a woman living 100 years ago that she had no frame of reference upon which to hang them. But she came to love Africa, in that tragic way that I suppose I too still love Africa – sort of an open wound in your soul when something reminds you of it, a movie or a book, and you grimace a little bit. “I once had a farm in Africa…” is how the novel starts. I think that says it all.
Incidentally, my “Out of Africa” novel is “I, Charles, From the Camps”. Dinesen’s is about the colony, mine is about what happened after all the Europeans left.