Sunday, 12 July 2009

Scatterlings and fugitives

"All that I am and know is entwind with this glorious, merciless corner of the world where I was born in sin, screaming at two-thirty in the morning. This is where I see TV images of dead dogs, dead cattle with severed hamstrings, dead children with dead smiles, dead police-men, dead mothers, and fathers lying, dead, on pavements after bank robberies. But this is also where I see dreams and business plans come to life, where I see signs of grace... I am buchu, tiger's eye and tanzanite. I am the Limpopo and the Zambezi, the Congo and the Lualaba and the Nile, because I have crossed the Rubicon in my heart. I am an African"
Dana Snyman, On the Back Roads
I was reading a blog post today that talked about Africa working it's 'slow and ancient magic'. All my life, I've grown up in, with, beside and sometimes against the narrative of Africa as different and 'other' and somehow magical. As I grew older, I discovered the downside of this image, the negative associations of Africa as a 'dark' continent, mostly unintelligible and less developed - and therefore less important - than the others. I have come to reject, wholeheartedly, the idea that Africa and Africans are primitive and unable to function as part of an integrated global world. I foam at the mouth about articles and arguments which suggest that Africans do not have the capacity to be part of modern societies and even the suggestion that Africans have no interaction with the rest of the world. I have seen first-hand, living in African cities like Cape Town and Joburg, just how spurious arguments like that are. I've worked with groups of young people, sometimes in extremely rural areas, who regularly access the internet - via their cellphones, mostly - and share their interests and information with other young people across the globe. The image of a primitive African child sitting in a village and living as his or her ancestors have done for thousands of years is simply unrealistic and Africa is very much a part of the global internet world, just like everyone else.

There remains, however, a deep pride in my home, my continent. And perhaps that is why it still, to me at least, is magical. Africa is difficult and dusty and heartbreaking but Africa is beautiful and immense and magical. Getting ready to move to Asia, I started reading and thinking a lot about difference and what makes a place special. South Korea is held up as an ancient civilisation. It's not as famous as China, of course, but the Korean peninsula has existed as a united kingdom for over a thousand years (until 1953 at least) and the people of Korea take huge pride in their rich and long history. Like Europe, many of the things listed in the guide-books as 'worth seeing' are very old. Palaces and burial mounds dating back for many centuries excite and engage tourists from around the world and stimulate the imaginations of visitors. Coming from a country that is really only a hundred years old, and which has only really been part of the global world (and known to Europe) for a few centuries (and only back in the global fold for 15 years), all this talk of the importance of history and tradition is a little daunting. It is easy to assume that Africa is a little inferior in this sense. There is a sense, I think internationally, that Africa is a young continent that is still on the road to reaching the heights of civilisation and development that the rest of the world has long-since found. South Korea has certainly caught up, for example. With subways and mega-cities and massive industry, this country is well and truely 'developed'.

What people forget is that Africa isn't a young continent at all. Despite efforts over the years to suggest that Africans are primitive and a younger or, insidiously, a genetically inferior subspecies, despite all the talk about the 'dark continent', science now seems to have generally accepted the fact that Africa is where it all began. I come from a continent that can, and indeed a country that does, claim to be the cradle of humankind. The idea that African civilisation and cities are less common, less developed and less sophisticated than the rest of the world (which is itself largely untrue) should not detract from the fact that Africa's history is older and richer than anywhere else. The long, unbroken line of history is not necessarily dramatic, with monuments and temples and rich burial mounds; it is an ordinary part of every day life - the ancient is permeates the everyday. In Africa when I walk down a country (or city) road, I am walking the same path that the ancestors of all men, the original peoples, have walked for thousands and thousands of years. The slow modern development - which admittedly I often feel the urge to speed up - is part of a much longer line of history. Societies and civilisations in Africa have been rising and falling and changing and moving since long before Europe and the Middle East were 'civilised'.

Here in Korea people know very little about Africa. A few will tell me they once met a South Africa - particularly those who have travelled and come across us in places like London. But few have heard of the country, except perhaps to know that we are hosting 2010. That's fine. There are many wonderful things that I will learn and discover about the country that is my temporary home and it will be fascinating to see how this particular branch of humankind has grown and developed over the millennia. And in exchange perhaps I can share with them just a little of our common home. Someone asked me the other day if I miss Africa. I don't, at least not yet, partly because I have only been here a week and partly because I'm rapidly turning my flat into a little bit of Africa far away - with pictures of Africa and African music and eventually (once I figure out how to use all the cooking equipment) the smell of African food. I've often criticised those who go away and never spend time with anyone but South Africans. I don't intend to do that. But I do want to create an African sanctuary from the noise and the over-crowding and the foreign words and ways.

And more than that, I suppose: in my heart, in the things that I can share with them, I am an ambassador for what Africa has become. In this way, and I know this isn't just me, Africa is not simply a place, it becomes, it is, how we meet all the others, wherever we go. All of us who scatter and leave and go, carry a little bit that incredible sense of the magic that is Africa in our hearts. Perhaps, who knows, but perhaps the real reason that the struggle against Apartheid won was that each of those exiles, so far away, carried in their hearts a little bit of Africa and the knowledge that someday, somehow, they would go home. It's hard to miss Africa or to feel homesick when you remember that we are all scatterlings and because we bring with us, to meet the world, the magic of the oldest place of all.


  1. It's great to see you're settling in! Amen on the Africa sanctuary. As I mentioned to you before you left, buying that shitty South African wine from the convenience in my village; virtually in the middle of nowhere, was a great reminder of things from home, even though I was thousands of miles away from it!

  2. I think that's the cherry for me - African wine :)

    (and glad me talking about 'narrative' in the first two lines didn't scare you off...)