Africa, Imagined

Africa. Continents yet to be conquered!

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A whorl of images and impressions come to mind at the very utterance of the word: from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, a jungle-like opulence of green fed by a muddy river, along the banks of which dwell heathens, in and mostly around their mud and thatch huts. “Wildest Africa”, a BBC documentary series, with its episodes on Lake Manyara, the Ngorogo Desert, the Rift Valley, and the famed Serengeti National Park. The dessicated dryness of Botswana, described by Norman Rush in his insufficiently-appreciated masterpiece, Mating. The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, named in honor of a Rockefeller who died too young and made African art his collecting passion. Or the contemporary artist El-Anatsui, whom I imagine walking the dirt-covered streets of Kumasi patiently collecting metal wrappers and bottle tops so that he can knit them into wave-like quilts in colorful reds, yellows, and oranges, evoking the bright robes wrapped around Maasi cattle and goat herding natives of Tanzania and Kenya.

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Older images, too. Silly Ernest Hemingway strutting around Mount Kilimanjaro, rifle slung by his side. Maps imperially drawn and redrawn by distant colonists in dusty rooms. How much has changed? Of course, what could I possibly write about an entire continent, anyway; here, I offer observations only about this or that place that I’ve been. Points on a map. Points on a map becoming places, at least to me, to all of us.

In today’s world, perhaps in any world, it is impossible to travel to places new or unexplored without harboring preconceptions about the people, their health and the vitality of their economy, the look of their cities and the smell and dusty moments of their alleyways. Most of the time, these preconceptions keep our company unannounced and so by and large, we fail to notice them. Now that I’m in Africa, these subterranean vignettes, anecdotes, images and imagined artifacts are surfacing. Many of them, I discover, derive from my experience with one or another form of art.

And too often, I find myself thinking one version or another of the formulation, “X/Y/Z looks/is/isn’t different from what I’d thought it would look like/be/etc.” I try to guard against such reflexive musings, and when I do find myself thinking them, seek to quickly set them aside, as I am convinced that insights that do not originate in comparing or matching reality to expectations are in every way superior. As my social-scientifically-oriented spouse will repeatedly assert, of what relevance is what “I thought” to a sober, open-eyed account of what’s on the ground?

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— Sarah, Arusha, Tanzania

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