At first, briefly, Africa dismayed me: a whole new continent. The familiar contours of my anxiety.
Nairobi, Kenya. The highway from the airport to our hotel. Light through dust and throngs of people walking along the side of the road. There is a very well dressed lady standing in the middle of a huge pile of dead chickens, groups of men are playing checkers with bottle caps on the side of the road. Tiny, run down houses and muddy stalls.
My dad spent his childhood in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. My grandfather was a missionary. He wasn’t born religious, one day in the 1950s he was watching a film about the crucifixion, and the actor playing Jesus had looked directly into his eyes, and although his lips didn’t move he said I did this for you. So the hard labouring, ex-serviceman young husband retrained as a minister, and he and his wife took their young family, including an ill, paraplegic son and and a three year old, to Africa.
I’ve always felt slightly embarrassed whenever I’ve had to own up to my family’s stake in the sheer arrogance of white colonial imperialism. When grandpa died, I went to the nursing home in Haberfield to collect his things. They had stripped the mattress but I could still rest my hand in the dent where his body had been. I collected his clothes, his wedding photo, his battered bible. He left Mum and Dad some money and instead of letting it be subsumed in the endless grocery/credit card payments cycle, they decided to spend on a holiday, of sorts – a family trip to Africa.
The hotel is run by the Presbyterian church. It turns out that there’s is no alcohol served, to the dismay of my tipple loving family. Luckily my sister and I had been given handfuls of mini bottles of spirits and wine by a cheery air steward and we sit on the bed in my parent’s room, skolling from the bottle like teenagers. Mum’s the only one of us with a local sim card and I’m using her ancient first generation iPhone to try and access Facebook. My sister and I have been teasing her for insisting on keeping this old crappy phone. “That’s such a nice phone,” the receptionist had said, touching it like a talisman. I agreed.
The next day we fly to Kigali, Rwanda. I am reading a book I bought at the airport called The Challenge for Africa by the hugely inspiring nobel peace prize winning Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who started the Green Belt movement, which aims to encourage women across Africa to plant trees and gain education. She writes
“Africans have been obscured from themselves. It is as if they have looked at themselves through another person’s mirror – whether that of a colonial administrator, a missionary, a teacher, a collaborator or a political leader – and seen their own cracked reflections or distorted images – if they have seen themselves at all.”
I keep thinking about this cracked mirror, of vision skewed through the shiny, loaded dice accoutrements of colonialism. I keep thinking of power structures that mean I can be so thoughtlessly, complacently well off, while other people have so little.
I really know nothing about Rwanda, and the genocide happened when I was too young to know the details. I read the potted Lonely Planet history on the plane, touch down in a city of hills and palms and verdant vegetation. We’re met at Kigali airport by our guide Emabré. The Lonely Planted said it was hard to believe Kigali was once full of bodies left to rot or be eaten by dogs, and I can’t. Driving out of the city a boy of about twelve waves, I wave back and he points to my camera. He and his two friends pose like a mid nineties boy band while I snap pictures, they are blurred and over exposed, but you can see their grins, their energy.
We stop on the side of the road to take pictures of the view. Two children come up stare at us, wide eyed and silent. They are bare footed, their clothes are filthy. I ask if I can take their picture and they pose quietly, their faces serious. I mime a smile and the older boy copies me hesitantly. Running feet, a band of kids, “Photo! Photo!” One of them demands and I take one, ask him to come closer and smile. “Money, money!” He holds out his hand. I don’t have any and I tell him so. Deflect him by showing him the photo and flamboyantly mispronouncing his name to gleeful laughter. Emabré decides it’s time to leave and we climb back into the Land Rover.
I get to thinking about the concept of exchange. This is a country where 44% of the population live in poverty. Maybe my fancy DSLR camera was worth as much as his family owned, probably more. Was my coming and taking photos just a continuation of the old structures of colonialism that took African resources from under African people’s feet and left them with nothing? Another incarnation of unequal exchange? The guide has told us not to give children money, it encourages absenteeism and a culture of begging, but I can’t help but cringe at my excuse. I have none. What I meant was it’s in the car, in a money belt, in US dollars of higher denominations.
In the afternoon, after we’ve ensconced ourselves in the hotel, Emabré takes us to the markets on a mission for kangas, the colourful wax cloth the women wear. He slows down to point out a military wedding. “Would you like to help?” We agree, nervously.
He drives through security and ushers us out, and we are told by men in uniform that we are welcome. It’s the reception, everyone is seated in long rows of plastic chairs, and we sneak into the empty section at the back. The bride is in sparkly white sitting up the front with her new husband, and surrounded by their family members. A choir sings a hymn, speeches, a single bottle of champagne in popped (we find out later that the pastor is still present, and they don’t like to drink in front of him, that later there will be beer and dancing until morning.) We get up quietly to leave, but are stopped at the door, told we have to stay for drinks. They are handing out long glass bottles of soft drink from crates. I haven’t had Fanta for years and the sweetness surprises me, the fizzing on my tongue. The little girl in the row in front turns round to take a photo of me. I smile.
The markets consist of long concrete benches, loaded with fish and vegetables. Squeezing between shoppers I am caught behind a man talking aloud in Kinyarwanda. I assume he is crazy but I’m told he’s preaching from the Bible. We find a stall selling kangas but I’m distracted by the stall owner’s baby daughter, swaddled in pink polar fleece. Emabré translates my awkward questions to the owner while my sister picks out cloth. Her name’s Rita, this tiny, perfect bundle. I ask him to translate beautiful.
We meet another guide on the boarder between Rwanda and Uganda, the biblically named Ezekiel who asks us on the first night whether we are Christian. While I’m shaking my head my father answers “sort of.” I ask Ezekiel to teach me Swahili, start greeting people with jambo. Ezekiel’s nickname is Tembo – elephant, for his size.
That night we camp in a national park. I’m sick, maybe because I keep forgetting the dictum to wash your teeth with bottled water. The path to the toilet goes through a grassy clearing and then a few hundred meters through the jungle. I turn of the torch in the darkest part of the track. Fire flies flash on and off around my head. The grass on either side of the path is covered in turquoise dew drops, glowing like gems. I look closer and see they are thousands of spiders, lighting my way like stars. Then I throw up.
We head to Lake Ngorongoro, where Dad’s family used to spend holidays. Mum has found the exact place where they used to stay. It’s owned by the Church of Uganda. The buildings are new, but I imagine the shoreline is the same: the fingernail sliver of sand, dugout canoes. Light filtering in smoky bands through overhanging branches.
Near our little cabin is a playground and I listen to the young boys playing, trying to pick out words I know. I hear “Simba! Simba!” Realise the boy on top of the climbing frame is fending off a lion attack. At dinner, the broad smiled waiter tells us he likes it here where it’s peaceful, prefers it to the resort next door where there’s a bar and a discotheque and shouting (“Let’s go there!” my sister says after he’s gone). Later, I sit in the dark on a creaky swinging chair, putting off going to bed. I watch quiet men walk thigh deep through the water, dragging silver nets behind them.
It must have been heaven for my grandparents, after years of hard work, my grandmother keeping house with no electricity, organising woman’s groups and feeding the six on them, learning how to suture wounds and survive sometimes on the mangoes that grew in their garden. My grandfather building hospitals for people with leporsy, preaching in a language he was still only learning. To come to the water, to do nothing.
We begin the long drive along Lake Victoria, crossing in to Tanzania and heading south to the Serengeti. As we drive children yell and wave and I wave back, feeling vaguely like the queen. The women in their kangas, loads balanced on their heads, ignore us as they walk regally along the roadside.
One of the villages where Dad lived as a child is just off the main road to Mwanza, which is on our route. It’s pouring when we get there, and we speed past the turn off, so Ezekiel has to reverse polei polei with the trailer meandering sideways across the road. The village is deserted and there’s a new church that Dad doesn’t recognise. He jumps out to examine the mission house and the rest of us reluctantly follow, becoming instantly sodden.
Suddenly, like a prayer, a hymn swells from the open church door, strong and beautiful. It’s a shining thing, this sound, welling through the unseasonable downpour.