Litro #120: Africa
Letter from the Editor
“A New Focus on Africa” by Komla Dumor
“Fragments of Bone” by Inua Ellams
Compiled by Alex James
Letter from the Editor
“A New Focus on Africa” by Komla Dumor
“Fragments of Bone” by Inua Ellams
Compiled by Alex James
How much do you know about Africa?
We tend to speak of it as though it’s one giant, inscrutable territory, and yet Africa contains 54 different countries, all with different cultures, geographies, and people, amongst which are some of the world’s fastest growing economies. For many of us, the only time Africa appears on our radar is when it’s in the news—Somali Pirates, KONY 2012, Darfur, email scammers, the World Cup. Most of our references are sadly negative.
It’s this perception that Ghanaian journalist and presenter of BBC Focus on Africa, Komla Dumor, tackles in his piece, “A New Focus on Africa”—in which he explores the very different reality of a continent that’s all too easy to write off in one way or another.
So the pieces we’ve chosen this month try to offer a vision that offers, to borrow Mr. Dumor’s phrase, a new focus on Africa. In Tracey Iceton’s atmospheric “Grass Wars”, a day job is anything but mundane; in Ailsa Thom’s delicately unsettling “Menengai”, tourism and everyday life collide; while Raoul Colvile examines the struggle between myths of the past and the reality of the present in his evocative “Harare Revisited”. We’re also thrilled to be featuring an extract from Alain Mabanckou’s touching and witty autobiographical novel, Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty, as well as poetry by award-winning performance artist and poet Inua Ellams.
We hope you enjoy this month’s issue of Litro. It’s rare to have a chance to explore unfamiliar territory. It’s even rarer to do so in such good company.
Litro Magazine Editor
The herd wakes me, hungry again and baying for grass, green and juicy. They huddle round the basher, lowing and groaning. Their rolling backsides butt up against the bent branches. Their snot-dripping snouts nose into gaps between the hide-roof and branch-walls. One snorts right over my face. Hot, stale breath clouds over me; spittle rains onto my cheeks and into my eyes. I sit up and rub my face on my robe. Next to me Shahuri continues to snore. It’s his turn to do the milking. I reach over and shake his smooth black shoulder. He grunts like a hog and tries to roll away from my shaking hand. I slap his leg.
[private]“It’s light, get up.”
He sits and rubs sleep from his eyes.
I crawl out of the basher. The cows have closed us in during the night. The cold keeps them near the fire. The thorn corral is really for the lions. They’d gorge on the herd given the chance. On me and Shahuri as well. I keep the AK47 for them. For the Nyangatom too. Thieving bastards.
I push tan flanks out of the way. Gentle slaps and sharper prods with my stick if they are stubborn. Squatting over the dead grey ash, I poke around in the embers hoping to find something glowing. I told Shahuri to build it up more last night. If he wants fire he can get his arse out here and get busy with the sticks. I find the faintest breath of heat from right in the fire’s heart. Two handfuls of dry grass, the morsel of heat clutched between them and three soft blows. The grass flares up fiercely as Shahuri emerges from the basher. I feed more grass to the flames.
“Good fire, eh?” he says, “Which cow you want me to milk, Aratula?”
“That one.” I point out one with hanging udders. He takes up the basin and starts pulling on the teats, his fuzzy black head buried in her tan side.
While he’s making himself useful I dismantle the basher. Crushed and crumpled grass shows where our bodies slept. I take up my bow and draw an arrow from the quiver. The arrow is tipped with flint. The point is sharp. Sunlight winks off it. There is no flight. The bow is the length of my forearm, the wood is kalochi, the same as for my prized Donga fighting stick.
My Donga fight was many years ago.
“Give Aratula the Donga.”
“He’s too little still to hold it up.”
“He must start soon.”
“Not too soon.”
“Not too late or he will never be a champion, never win a sagine. Never be granted his own herd. Never find a wife. Give him the stick.”
The long thin pole, its tip shaped like a manhood, the prize for wielding it hardest, was placed in little Aratula’s hands. He held it straight. It reached over his head and up to the sky. He held it still and firm.
“See, I tell you, woman, he’s a natural. Look how he holds it so strong, like he was born with it in his hands. He will be a great champion,” his father said.
Aratula didn’t understand why but he knew his father was happy with him as long as he could hold onto this stick that was twice his size. He squeezed his fists tightly around the smooth wood, felt sweat seeping out between his fingers and his hands slipping down. He ran one hand over the other, up the shaft of the stick, as high as he could reach. He kept them running up; they kept sliding down.
“Like this, Aratula,” his father said, laughing. He took the stick and raised it over his head. He thrashed it down on the grass at Aratula’s feet, whipping and slashing brittle blades until the grass was decimated and the earth scarred. “Only you must aim for your opponent Try to hit him here,” his father touched the stick to Aratula’s head, “or here,” his shoulder, “or here,” his arm, his leg, his side, his back, “but hard, hard as you can.” His father held the stick out to Aratula. He knelt down in front of the boy, making himself only one head taller than his son. He nodded encouragement.
Aratula raised the stick. It slid from his sweaty palms and speared the ground behind him.
“Too little, yet,” his mother said wisely as she turned back to their hut.
His father clicked his tongue in annoyance. He retrieved the stick.
“You must learn quick-quick, Aratula. If you don’t others who do will knock you on your backside,” he warned.
Aratula took his grip again. He raised the stick, not so far back this time, and brought it down with a crack, onto his father’s shoulder.
“OW! Well done, Aratula.” His father patted him on the head and grinned broadly showing a mouthful of crooked white teeth through his fleshy pink lips.
Shahuri has got the milking done at last. He passes me the bowl. I drink the warm earthy liquid: grass-juice. Den, who has been off looking for snakes, bounds over. He licks my hand hungrily.
“Yes, yes, your turn.” I jam my heel into the dry earth and hollow out a delve for the last of the milk. He laps it wolfishly. Shahuri drops down beside him and tries to shove his face into the milky hole too. Den growls.
“What are you doing?”
“You give the dog too much. I’m still hungry,” he complains.
“Den will have your ears for breakfast if you try to take his milk,” I warn, “Let’s do the bleeding. That’ll fill your belly.”
We take a cow, one of my favourites, a little way from the rest of the herd. She comes easily, willingly. Shahuri tethers her to a thorn bush and tightens the tourniquet around her neck. Blood pools in her vein, throbbing to be released. I take the bow and arrow with its flint point and fire it into her neck. Blood arcs out and splashes into the waiting milk bowl. We let the bowl fill half way. Then Shahuri undoes the tourniquet and I squeeze the nick closed with my fingers until its clots seal. We thank her and turn her loose. With one low moo she signals she accepts our thanks and rejoins her fellows.
The bowl is now brimming with frothy red liquid. We sit round it and take turns drinking. The taste is sweet and metallic. We spit out the clots. It clots fast so you must drink with haste. Our teeth and lips are soon stained red and we are filled up with energy. I sprinkle the last few droplets on the ground to encourage the grass to keep growing. The grass here is very old and tired. It is giving up and dying: surrendering the fight to us. But the battle goes on, Suri herdsman and cows versus grass and Nyangatom bastards. And we are ready now.
The day of Aratula’s Donga battle dawned. He had waited so long for this: all his life.
He made ready: the mud paint, red, yellow and blue, daubing the spiral patterns he had practised in the dust behind their hut on his chest and arms, the blue beaded cord that all fighters wore fastened around his neck and, wrapped around his waist, the twine that attached to the end of the Donga stick he had spent weeks carving, polishing and shaping from the most flexible kalochi branch his father could find. He took up his Donga and swished it through the air, naming each parry and thrust, ticking off the movements as they sliced imagined opponents with ease and grace. He would win, Aratula was sure. He would be today’s banzanai.
His mother came out.
“For you.” She held out a woven grass helmet of blue and yellow.
Aratula shook his head.
“Wear it,” she pleaded.
“I don’t need it,” Aratula insisted.
His mother pursed her lips, the tight line scarring her face. Her eyes trembled a little. She put the helmet on the ground at his feet. Her back turned Aratula trampled it flat. The scars of a Donga fight are medals of bravery, for wearing the rest of your life to remind the tribe how you fought and won your sagine, your herd, your wife and your manhood. Later you would be able to tell the stories to your children: this jagged shoulder-scar here I got when I muddled a block and received a sharp blow but I came back at him with a whip to the head that knocked him clean out.
Aratula squatted at the fire, the smooth pads of his backside grazing his heels. He scooped up white ash and circled his eyes with it. He up-ended his mother’s best pot and looked at himself in its shiny interior, scrubbed clean over and over. Inside he met the ghoulish fighter that would strike terror into the hearts of all the others that day. He was ready.
Aratula and all the other contesters for the Donga title made their way in procession to the centre of the village. A large crowd had gathered already, old men, young children, the women of the tribe dressed in robes of mauves, indigoes and turquoises that formed a multi-coloured, manmade grass plain. Some wore hats that bobbed as though carried by the long waving tide of grasses. And growing out of this plain was a forest of Donga sticks, carried in honour of the occasion. Aratula stopped and allowed himself one moment to taste the day on his tongue, a day that was sweet with the wild-honey flavour of victory and triumph.
The elder called the village to order. Last minute spectators rushed to the fighting zone. Aratula stepped into the ring, bowed his head as the elder recited the chant that opened the Donga contest and waited with the whispered taunts of a thousand grass-stalks in his ears to face his first opponent.
The fighters paired up. It was Aratula against Laduhuri first. They faced each other and circled cautiously. They shouted their war cries and edged around each other, swinging their Dongas through the air. Aratula taunted Laduhuri to strike out. Then he did. His parry missed. Aratula struck back, drew first blood with a blow to the shoulder. The crowd cheered. Egged on, he hit again, a blow to the head knocking off the grass helmet Laduhuri’s grandmother had made him. Blood spurted and ran into his eyes. Laduhuri wiped at it with the back of his forearm, blocked two blows, took two more and fell prone and crumpled into the waiting grass. Aratula was declared the day’s first victor.
The whip and crack of Donga sticks hitting and missing their mark filled the air all day until it came down to the last match, Aratula and Barguru. Just as the sun was burning low over the grasslands they lined up for final battle. Aratula saw his father in the crowd, his white slash grin wide and bright in the dying light, a stalk chomped between his teeth. Aratula lashed out. Barguru took wounds to the chest, arm and leg. But he fought hard back, landing blows on Aratula’s head and shoulders. They sparred as the sun sank. Neither would give, neither fell. Aratula thought they would be locked in combat forever; the tribe would have to go back to their business, herding, cooking, eating and sleeping, perhaps for days until one lay dead and the other stood triumphant. Their Dongas slapped and whapped on the ground, on their flesh, cutting through skin, painting each other red. Aratula felt no pain, only the red hot flush of fighting anger. He raised his Donga higher than ever before and rained blows down on Barguru with ferocious speed: crack, crack, crack. Quicker than bullets peeling out of the AK47s the men sometimes fired for target practise, in case of Nyangatom raids on the village. Barguru quivered and shook all over like his body was feeling the stampede of a giant wave of cattle. And fell.
Aratula was the banzanai. The tribesmen gathered him up on their shoulders and paraded him around the village.
We round up the herd and set off in the direction of a waterhole that might have drinkable dregs and decent grazing. We walk slowly. Speed only makes the cows thirstier. And Shahuri complain more.
“Where are we heading, Aratula? Isn’t there some good grass just over that rise? Can’t we stop and rest yet? What’s to eat? Have we any meat left?”
I shrug off his tireless questions. He knows the answers as well as me. He’s young but not stupid. I hope this year he will win the Donga contest, get his own herd and leave me in peace with mine.
We walk until the sun is high. It scorches yellow heat over all the grasslands, turning everything it touches grey and brown. It makes the grass brittle, withers it: defeats it. At the waterhole the sun has beat us to it. There is only a puddle. The cows drink until the ground is parched. Then they lick the earth as if to encourage more water to the surface. There is some shade nearby from a baobab tree. The herd scatters to chew to shreds the cooler, moister grass that lies in its shadow. Shahuri climbs the baobab and drops two fruit at my feet. I split them with my machete and we chew the powdery white flesh inside. It is sweet and sharp. I wish we had water to add to it for a long, clean drink. At least while Shahuri chews he doesn’t talk. I spit baobab seeds and stretch out in the shade. There is no wind today; the grass is silent, sulking. The cows munch it down to the dirt. Shahuri stays hushed up. As soon as he falls asleep he will start to snore. He is never quiet for long. I close my eyes.
“Aratula, Aratula, wake up, man.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Look! Look, Aratula. Over there.” His voice is urgent. I sit up.
“Have you bullets?” he asks.
“Use your stick or wave some fire. Lions hate that. If you act like a warrior they will run off. Be brave, man.”
“No, no. Not a lion,” he hops up and down on one leg, “Nyangatom. Coming our way.” His eyes are wide, the whites like two full moons with dark craters in their middle. His teeth are bared, an animal, fierce with fear.
“Nyangatom? Here? They are a long way from home.”
“Tell them, tell them.” He keeps hopping. If he was so light on his feet in the Donga battles he would win for sure.
There are five of them. Nyangatom bastards. Coming closer. Their herd is a few scraggy cows. They plan a raid. My cows to fill their bellies with meat and blood. My fingers worry an old scar on my forearm. I won my Donga, the first and only one I ever fought in, for the right to this herd. Now I provide for it, get grass and water no matter how far we search, how long we struggle. This herd is mine, the grass in their stomachs I won for them, the milk in their udders is the victory drink, the blood in their veins keeps us fresh for fighting.
“Aratula, what we gonna do, man?” Shahuri is running circles around me like a crazed calf. Den sits calmly, watching and grinning.
“Stop, you’re making me dizzy,” I grab his shoulder, “What we gonna do is nothing.” I tip Den a wink. He barks in agreement.
“Nothing?! You’re mad. Shoot ‘em, shoot the Nyangatom bastards.”
“Shahuri,” I tighten my grip on his shoulder, “what you want me to shoot them with? Baobab seeds? We gonna stand our ground.”
“Let’s leave the herd, run for it. They’ll kill us.”
“I’m not surrendering my herd to them so I can run like bloody impala, to save my hide. That’s disgrace. I’m a banzanai. I won’t run and neither will you.” I dig my fingers into the bones of his shoulder, “It’s time to fight, brother. Try to win, eh?”
They are on us. We stand together, Den, Shahuri and I. I tighten my grip on the seedless AK and call out to them.
The leader laughs. He points at the cows.
“We come for them.”
I shake my head. “Go home.”
He turns to the other Nyangatom and chatters. They caw like crows.
“You will die for your cows and we will take them anyway,” he says.
“I am a sagine champion. These cows are mine. Get your own.” I raise the AK.
“That’s why I’m here,” he replies.
Crack, crack, crack. The clapping of hands. Crack, crack, crack. The stamping of feet. Crack, crack, crack. The beating of dongas. Crack, crack, crack. Something worse, much worse.
The grasses whisper and hush in the stillness that settles. Scattered cows are pulled into a herd, swollen with new members drawn like water from a well into the ranks. The Nyangatom get ready to leave with their prize. A dog howls pitifully. The leader lashed a kick at it.
“So much for your master, the great sagine victor,” he tells the dog. He laughs. All the Nyangatom laugh now. They go for home with their newly fattened herd.
The hard ground in the shade of the baobab tree soaks up their blood, Aratula’s and Shahuri’s, drinking in the life liquid, softening like rusks in milk. Hidden seeds belly up with richness, filling and popping, spilling their germinating guts into the red rivulets, rolling and lolling in contentment. Next year the grasses here will be greener, lusher and sweeter. Where there is blood grass grows verdant and happy. Where there is grass there is life.[/private]
There is no souring air in memories, no corrupting bacteria, no dirtying teeth. Memories instead remain vacuum packed, their fruits refrigerated, plush and solid amongst the parts of the past we have each lived through and then quietly forgotten.
Harare was always a plum to me, a gorgeous memory; blue-black, full and ripe, luxurious and sweet to the tongue. I recall a veranda fringed city, snug with waiters, sunk into earth that feels hot and old. A place punctured with plentiful, crystalline pools. Impressive, near utopian. Of all the things that my unconscious cast away, its grip on Harare, that boyhood visit, never slackened.
[private]In the memory, the hour of your approach to the city does not matter. The airport is expanding then, the city well lit at night. British Airways are operating a direct service. But now, from a private jet, I am unable to see the broken roofs below. Night has unfurled itself, stretched out across the ground, and the land is a black blanket. From the plane’s window the terrain below holds no mirror to the stars. Harare is without power it seems; mute to sight. The faintest bump as we touch down. Despite recent landings in places their tongues are less familiar in shaping, the pilots (two slabs of tough Rhodesian meat amongst the levers of the cockpit) seem edgier on this arrival. I do not press them; the heartbeat of the past double taps me as the wheels meet the ground. I see my family, returning from Victoria Falls. My sister with a crayon colouring book, hand like a typewriter in fast forward, pinging back and forth, weaving an incantation against her fear of flying, next to me. She is just another small, safe, holiday maker in the packed passenger cabin, another of the many tourists who disembark to see well groomed runway, lines of other planes like cards in a pack, a strongly-lit tower. A vision in order.
But in the present the jet’s door rises only into inky skies and it is the smell of Zimbabwe, unchanged, that greets me. Sensory compensation; the prominence of its reach, its incense, where the order of the eye once reigned. We peer across the cracking concrete, at motionless dark. The airport seems abandoned, only the sigh of our engines cooling for company. One of the pilots stoops from the cockpit, “Number One has just left”, he says and gestures around. Even the pilots refer to him that way. “It’s closed for him. We were lucky to get in.” We aren’t without our own influence then, but still we huddle together in the cavernous bus which takes us to the terminal. It is built for fifty, rotten with ghosts. Getting closer, finally I see faint emergency lights, bleeding from the tower’s sign. They are broken, unable to spell the greeting they gave, all the years before, to my parents’ little band:
“WELC ME TO HAR E”.
A handshake missing a finger. As I watch, the lights flicker, flicker, die.
The locals’ necks humoured us as children; bending down like giraffes (on holiday), willow switches (at home). “From London sah?” They wanted to hear about it, to make us feel special.
The necks are iron now at the visa counter, the faces stone blocks when they see my British passport. They need to know no more about me. My purpose? “Business”. My greeting; cold eyes, the elevation of price of entry.
It is not a good time for our driver to be late. Shed of its light, the lobby’s corners are a mess of alien forms, figures skulking, in congress with the dark. I can see dated adverts in the dim, Cheshire Cat smiles on them; it could be those smilers’ bodies, divorced by the years, that mould into the airport’s recesses now, that wait for people less protected. A sequence of events follow quickly from there; the driver’s arrival, our entry to the car, its move from the curb side. With each stage comes respective inflation and deflation, of relief, of shoulders. Old friends wait in the vehicle, but it is ‘the situation’ we discuss as inquiries of health, wives, children, wait. There is no power the locals confirm, no water either. Generators, boreholes, razor fences, these are now the required vitamins.
At a junction, a bumper crumples to our right, correlating with the road’s surface; the traffic lights are closed eyes; an exclamation of weary horns. The driver is rueful, grinning, steers without fuss. “You don’t stop now,” he says calmly. All is black still. Indifferent to our arrival, another day in Harare is coming to an end. We move on, the driver telling us that he is worried at taking a wrong turning in the dark these days. Worried about the roads he knows so well.
Closer to the city’s heart and the dark means I cannot say how bad the cracks in the blocks we passed were, though the hotel narrates faded colony. Mounted heads of game, patchily stuffed, mini toiletries in wrinkled cling-film, gold buttoned lifts, unburnished. Can I race my sisters to the top floor in them again?
By the time I am ready for bed, wearily, my mind is making the slowest of turns, the circles our jet made as Number One took off. It tries to orientate itself, to package the past and present; but wrapped in tiredness, silenced by the sheets, I could be anywhere. In the morning though my preparations for work are laced with Harare; the twenty year old ironing board they send up with its leaking mate, the brown volumes that cascade at the turn of a stiffened tap, the corpse of the hotel my family stayed in, dirt streaked, seen from the car later that morning. For a moment I think the hotel looks tear-streaked, as I make my way to the sort of place this older me goes.
We pass lines of fruit trees, straggly and meandering, on the roadside. I find my eyes have fallen from the window to my legs. We turn off the road and I begin to focus on the tasks to be carried out that day. The path has become no clearer in front than behind. Dust, cloudy from the wheels, track disappearing as wilderness expands.
Specks settle on the windows; the breath of two questions. What awaits for these memories? What became of Harare?[/private]
Let me begin again, I say, as the bar blurs
invisible, its volume reduced to the merest
suggestion of others and it’s just us spotlit
in the black womb-like silence of theatre
and your question themes the play; let me
begin again: I went to church last Sunday.
The pastor preached: put not your faith in
man who only is good as his next breath;
align your faith with he who gives breath.
Here I stutter, my answer splintering like
fragments of bone against the mud soil
of memory. Moments before, I recalled
the call to prayer: In the Name of Allah
Most Gracious, Most Merciful – the slow
unfurling Imam’s son’s voice as dusk
touched the courtyard, the dust settling,
the sun solemnly bowed on the horizon –
thin as a prayer mat – and the gathered
performing ablutions: Bismillah, they say,
washing hands, mouths, nostrils, faces,
arms, head, ears, feet, kneeling to pray
Allah Is Great, God Is Great, they say.
You counter with airplanes, fireballs,
towers falling; stop your rant with
the first fireman to die, his skull caved
by a jumper from the 51st floor fleeing
flames. In the name of Allah, Gracious,
Great, Merciful this was done, you say.
I mention Amazing Grace, how sweet
the choir leader swayed in white robes,
eyes closed, humming southern baptist
hymn hypnotic, sailing congregations
to the oceanic depth whence his tears:
wide and sure as waves ride back and
forth that everything would be all right.
You rejected faith again, describing Jos,
Nigeria, the girl watching flat amongst
tall grass: the squad of Christian men
who hold her mother down as another
swings down with a machete, down as
sunlight skates the blade’s edge, down,
the last swing, the fragments of bone
and there are screams no more.
There’s blood in the drama of Men and
Gods, you say: rivers of it flow through
our wounded earth, gush from scripts
in houses of worship and act after act
aren’t all stained? except the audience?
the secular astray? You gesture toward
those seated in darkness who gawk as we
squabble on stage; aren’t they the ones
the light beyond will touch unbloodied?
who will die hands clean?
… Let me begin again, I say, I went to
church/the pastor preached/faith/man
/breath/… I stutter, the bar blurs back
to life, words falls against your ears.
It was 3:30 in the afternoon sometime in 2010 and I was just about to leave for Heathrow Terminal 5—virtually my second home—to catch a flight to Mozambique when my daughter loudly inquired, “Daddy, is everybody poor in Africa?”
I decided the taxi outside could wait for at least few more minutes. “Why are you asking such a question my dear?” Her answer—“Because every time I see Africa on telly they don’t have nice clothes and their houses are really small and the children are all sad.”
For the next five minutes I tried to explain a few hundred years of a history of exploitation, sometimes questionable leadership, and economic choices. An impossible task. But at the same time, I wanted to leave her with the level of optimism and energy I experience when I visit Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya and elsewhere across Africa. My thoughts boiled down to a single question: Who owns Africa’s image? It’s a question that is relevant and compelling, regardless of your response.
Over the past few years a silent revolution has been occurring across Africa. Some people are very much aware of it, while others are just coming to the realisation. But there are still others who are stuck in an old view of Africa and its challenges. The fact that most of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa is lost on them.
For some in the media, Africa is still a corrupt incompetent at the mercy of the random benevolence of rock musicians or Hollywood stars who care more about African children than Africans themselves. These tiresome stereotypes of day-to-day life in Africa are not only outdated but increasingly irrelevant to an emerging continent.
Some networks seem obsessed with stories of child witches and feed us with a constant diet of war weary, famine stricken lives. In 2009 I was asked by the BBC to anchor a new television program about Africa called Africa Business Report. For the next 2 and a half years, I racked up close to 200,000 air miles travelling to Uranium mines in the Namibian desert, diamond centres in Botswana, fish markets in Dar es Salaam, oil rigs off the coast of Ghana, real estate projects in Rwanda. I held conversations with bankers, businessmen and women, entrepreneurs and politicians, as well as a few African billionaires. I visited 22 countries in total that captured the real meaning of Africa’s rise.
I have made new friends and heard fascinating stories. For every city I visited I make it a personal point to find my way to the top of a skyscraper, just so I can observe that city in motion. I know it’s a cliché to say but it’s true—the vibe is different in Africa. The minute I touch down—Dar, Nairobi, Lusaka, Lagos, Gaborone, Jo’burg—I get the sense of a different energy, a different flow.
You see, since the independence era of the 1960’s Africa has been viewed through the prism (some say prison) of its underdevelopment. So the typical story from the continent has featured the same tired characters—the African strongman, the corrupt bureaucrat, the pot-bellied, bribe-taking policeman, the inefficient public servant or the taxi driver who gleefully tells you “what the problem is with Africa”. And without a doubt elements of these characters exist in varying degrees in some places in Africa.
But this stereotypical, headline-grabbing interpretation of Africa is for me a myopic one. Africa Business Report was a new pair of glasses through which viewers could observe Africa—a better perspective with a more balanced view. There are two stories I’d like to share that might give you a sense of what you may have missed. The first is from Botswana.
If you a fortunate enough to afford or be the recipient of a diamond ring or necklace, chances are it was once a rough diamond from the fields in Botswana, the world’s biggest producer. For may years after independence Botswana followed a pattern some countries are still stuck in. You know the story—African country X that produces raw material Y but has little control over its sale, pricing, or the finished product.
Three years ago, I met the director of the Botswana diamond hub. I was visiting the brand new high-tech facility that symbolised the hopes of a nation. The man in charge of the diamond hub, Dr. Akolang Tombale, told me Botswana did not want to be a mere exporter of rough diamonds anymore, but a player in the multi-billion dollar gem business. The diamonds were being cut and polished in Asia and bought and sold in Europe. The idea of the diamond hub was to train their own people to a point where the reliance on foreign expertise would gradually diminish. So I met many young smart Bostwanans learning the art of turning a rough stone into a fabulous jewel. There were brand new office spaces ready for the banks and insurers who would provide the financial backing for exported gems. In simple terms, the diamond hub would become a one-stop shop for the entire value chain of the diamond business.
Fast forward to 2012. I was reading the paper over breakfast early this year. My wrinkled brow broke into a broad grin when I saw a small headline which informed me that the world’s preeminent Diamond corporation De Beers was relocating some of its major operations to Botswana. By 2013, the article said, the De Beers rough diamonds sales team would be operating from Gaborone. My smile broke into grin. I had seen it coming.
The relocation is a first step for a small country with big ambitions. About 150 De Beers jobs will relocate to Gaborone as a result of this deal. In years to come, diamond buyers will be booking flights to Botswana rather than London. As De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer aptly put it, “The diamond industry’s centre of gravity is shifting.” Imagine what this does for the service industry, hotels, tourism and the country’s overall reputation. The fact is, this is a result of long term planning and foresight—not the kind of ad hoc firefighting policies that some nations are still dealing with. But for other nations with such ambitions, such a shift will not be easy. The traditional centre of power will resist these moves.
Now to my second story. A few months ago I was in Cape Town. One of the highlights of my experience there was a reunion of sorts. I met with an ex-roommate, Sebastian, though known in those days as Zor, from my college days at the University of Ghana.
After the usual round of laughs about our youthful escapades we started talking about the current state of affairs. Things have changed since college. Zor is still a lot of fun to be with, but I was impressed by his meteoric rise in the financial industry. As a senior manager at a leading African bank, he was constantly on the road. Brazil, Portugal, New York, Dallas, Nairobi—building relationships and structuring deals for investments in Africa. Although much of his time was spent in hotels and business class lounges of major air hubs, Zor had a comfortable life in Johannesburg and all the trappings of a finance executive. I think what was most refreshing about it was Zor enjoys this comfortable existence in Africa. He told me he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
I then began to think about what he said and realized that I know a lot of “Zors” around this continent. Professionals with skills and experiences, sometimes acquired at the best schools in Europe and the United States (in some cases homegrown talent) who are working successfully and living comfortably in Africa. They are the living proof that Africa is the land of opportunity for those who are smart and are prepared to take risks. Europe and America are no longer the holy grail.
It’s a remarkable change from our early years post graduation. Many young people would spend the night waiting outside the American embassy hoping and praying that the visa officer would look favorably on an application. In those days there was a belief that an officer’s “mood” could determine the outcome of your future. No surprise that lay preachers did brisk business in those overnight sessions praying over documents and asking for divine intercession for a visa.
But that was then, this is now. Many more of those friends of mine are now part of the exodus of African professionals who are quitting the rat race of the city and Wall Street to build world-class companies in Africa. I met with a group of young professionals who come together under a group called Star 100, extremely smart young men and women working with various high multinationals. The only thing they wanted to talk about were their plans for taking their skills and abilities and moving them to Africa. By the time you read this article, at least one of them has gone. She called me to tell me she quit her job in the city of London and now works out of Lagos. She is getting paid better, has all the perks she wants, and added, “Now I don’t have to travel two hours to buy proper suya!”
These two narratives are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to stories about how Africa is changing. I am sure you’ll have heard some of your own.
I am in a very privileged position. As a news anchor for the BBC, I have had the pleasure of being a witness to and narrator of some these stories. This year BBC World News launched Focus on Africa, the first Africa-focused daily news and current affairs programme on any of the major international networks. The BBC has more correspondents in Africa than any other international news network. Every weekday I join a team of African professionals to put together a world class broadcast for viewers around the world, bringing an African perspective to global news. I encourage you to watch it.
Don’t get me wrong. Africa still faces immense challenges—social, political and economic. But if you are still seeing and writing about Africa as a miserable and incompetent monolith, you need to go to the nearest optician—or better still switch on to BBC Focus on Africa.
Tomorrow I'll Be Twenty, published by Serpent's Tail, will be out in paperback in May 2013.
Michel is ten years old, living in Pointe Noire, Congo, in the 1970s. His mother sells peanuts at the market, his father works at the Victory Palace Hotel, and brings home books left behind by the white guests. Planes cross the sky overhead, and Michel and his friend Lounès dream about the countries where they'll land. While news comes over the radio of the American hostage crisis in Tehran, the death of the Shah, the scandal of the Boukassa diamonds, Michel struggles with the demands of his twelve year old girlfriend Caroline, who threatens to leave him for a bully in the football team. But most worrying for Michel, the witch doctor has told his mother that he has hidden the key to her womb, and must return it before she can have another child. Somehow he must find it. Tomorrow I'll Be Twenty is a humorous and poignant account of an African childhood, drawn from Alain Mabanckou's life.
We’re sitting outside the front door. Maman Martine is scaling the fish we’re going to eat this evening when everyone’s here. It doesn’t matter if it’s not beef and beans. I eat everything here, and I pretend I like everything. I can be fussy with maman Pauline but not with maman Martine, it would really upset her.
[private]At home there’s only Mbombie, Maximilien and little Félicienne, who’s just pissed on me when I was being really kind and giving her her bottle. I don’t know where the other children have gone. Yaya Gaston left early this morning for the port, and papa Roger won’t get back till sundown. My other brothers and sisters ought to be here too, because it’s the end of year holiday.
Seeing I can’t stop looking at the white bits in her hair, maman Martine says, ‘Ah yes, I’m not young like your mother Pauline, now. She must be the same age as one of my little sisters, the youngest, she’s just twenty seven, she still lives in Kinkosso.’
She looks up at the sky, murmuring, as though she was talking to someone else. She begins to talk, and she tells me how she grew up in Kinkosso and that to get to the village from the district of Bouenza you have to go in an Isuzu truck which takes four or five days. You go through other villages, across bridges which are just two trees laid side by side from one bank of the river to the other, so the trucks can pass. The only time they ever replace the trees is when there’s an accident, and lots of people die. That’s where she and papa Roger met.
I like the way maman Martine’s voice sounds when she tells the story about her and papa Roger. Somehow she puts a bit of magic into it. I sort of believe her, but sometimes it sounds a bit like one of those stories from the time when animals and men could talk to each other about how to live together in peace.
When maman Martine talks about when she met papa Roger, she has a smile that lights up her whole face, and smoothes out the little lines, she looks young again, like maman Pauline. Her face is all smooth, her skin is like a baby’s, her eyes shine and you forget about her grey hair. I imagine her as a young girl, turning boys’ heads. Somehow she manages to forget I’m there, and imagine it’s someone different listening to her, her eyes are somewhere above my head, not focussed on me directly. She’s talking to someone who doesn’t exist, and I think: ‘That often happens, it happens all the time, grown ups are all like that, they’re always talking to people from their past. I’m still too little to have a past, that’s why I can’t talk to myself, pretending to talk to someone invisible.’
Maman Martine doesn’t realise that for a little while now her lips have been moving, her head gently swaying, her eyes growing moist, as though she’s about to cry. Sometimes she misses a few scales on the fish in her hands and I point out to her that there are still some scales left on the fish, that we might choke when we come to eat it.
She speaks very quietly. ‘Roger was a real little heart throb! I can see him now, as he was that year, back then in the village they still called him Roger le Prince.’
Then she suddenly gives me a look as if to say she’s finished talking to the people from the past, now she’s talking to a real person. And that’s when I learn that aged twenty, papa Roger was the best dancer in the Bouenza. In Ndounga, his home village, he was respected. When the rhythm of the tam-tams really got going he could actually rise off the ground and dance in mid-air while the crowd applauded and the women looked on adoringly, including the ones who were already married. When it came to dancing no one could get a win over him, or even a draw. He was famous then, and that was how he got his nickname ‘Roger le Prince’. When there was a burial in that part of the country, they summoned him urgently, like calling a doctor when you’re sick. He’d turn up with his group of dancers – there were ten of them, all strong and handsome – and they danced all through the night, so that the deceased would not be sad on their journey to the other world, where the road doesn’t run straight, and there is no music, no dance.
The year he met maman Martine, Papa Roger had been asked to go and dance in the village of Kinkosso, whose chief had died, aged one hundred and ten. Everyone, from all the villages in the region, had come to his funeral, because it wasn’t every day someone died aged one hundred and ten. When he got to Kinkosso, Roger le Prince announced to the villagers, who were showering him with presents, ‘This evening I will dance more then ten centimetres off the ground, because it’s our grandfather’s grandfather who’s died.’
The old sorcerers of the village threatened to make gris-gris against it, because they didn’t want the other villages in the Bouenza to think Roger le Prince was the best dancer in the whole world. The old sorcerers knew the secret of the levitation dance but ever since it’s invention, no one had seen a human being dance ten centimetres off the ground.
Roger le Prince insisted:
‘No one’s going to stop me paying my respects to our grandfathers! I will dance ten centimetres off the ground!’
The old people went a long way off from village and held a big meeting against the rude young man who was poking fun at them. They nearly started fighting among themselves in the meeting. They all accused each other of inviting that rude Roger le Prince. But in the end they reached agreement: they must make sure that the stranger’s dance went no higher than ten centimetres off the ground.
That evening when Roger le Prince turned up in the village with his troupe, to find the women weeping over the corpse of the chief, he walked past three of the fetishers, and the oldest one came close to jostling him:
‘Hey, son, this isn’t just any village you know. You’re in our village here, and here we have rules that date back to the time when our ancestors walked about naked and didn’t yet know the word made flesh. You’ve got no grey in your beard yet, you’re too young to understand certain things only those with four ears and four eyes can grasp. You’d better watch out, you mark my words. You may not respect our village, but you’d better respect my grey beard and bald head.’
Roger le Prince replied:
‘Grandfather, I accepted your invitation to come to Kinkosso because the man who just died is someone special. He’s not just the chief of the village, he’s our grandfathers’ grandfather.’
‘Yes, but if you dance more than ten centimetres off the ground, you’re done for! You dance how you want, but no higher than ten centimetres! Don’t disgrace us in front of our people!’
Another unpleasant old man threatened:
‘Who d’you think you are anyway? Why d’you take this tone with us, when you’ve no grey beard and no bald head? Where were you the day the first White man set foot in this village, offering his mirrors, his sugar and guns, and taking our strongest men far away, across the sea? There’s Maniongui, who just asked you to show respect for his grey beard, his bald head, do you have a gold war medal too, like him? Old Maniongui’s seen every French president, since Emilie Loubet at the start of the century, to Général de Gaulle! Anyway whoever gave you the title of Prince, you don’t deserve it! We’re the ones who give titles! I’m giving you one last warning; if you dance more than ten centimetres off the ground, we’ll be burying you next, after our grandfathers’ grandfather! And your corpse won’t find its way home, you’ll be buried in the bush like a wild beast!’
The third old man spat on the ground. Which meant that he wasn’t going to waste his words like the others.
Roger le Pince moved away from the old men, but they went on threatening him behind his back. He called together his ten dancers to give them their instructions:
‘These old men are afraid they’ll look stupid, no dancer from this village has ever gone higher than ten centimetres, even though the levitation dance first started here in Kinkosso. We won’t be influenced by a handful of old goats who fancy themselves the guardians of tradition. We’ve learned their technique, we’ve mastered it, and now we’re the best in the region. And tonight we’ll prove it again, so get yourselves ready and don’t lose heart. You beat your tam-tams, as usual, and I’ll look after the rest.’
Maman Martine is scaling the last of the fish, and she almost curs herself with the knife when she cries, ‘Roger le Prince! What a fine young man! What a stubborn young man!’
When she saw I was waiting for the rest of the story, she cleared her throat and continued:
‘The evening of the grandfather’s funeral the men of Kinkosso lined up on one side and the women on the other. And between the two, Roger the Prince danced bare-chested, with a wrap made of raffia, and cowries round his waist, bells on his ankles and white clay on this face and in his hair. The bravest of the women were meant to step into the area left for Roger le Prince, and dance along with him. But none came. Now the crowd was growing restless, this wasn’t the kind of show you put on to say goodbye to the chief of the village. You could hear angry whistles, people shouting for a proper show. There had to be dancing, so everyone could get into a trance. Roger le Prince whispered something to one of his dancers, who then yelled a challenge to the audience, and I can still hear that low voice shouting: ‘Roger le Prince is very disappointed in this village! Have you no women in Kinkosso, or what? Is this the way to salute the memory of the grandfather of our grandfathers? If that’s the way it is, Roger le Prince is stopping right now, he’s going home to his village. And he swears he won’t be coming back to help you next time someone dies, you’re all too shy!’ At this one skinny young village girl shot out of the line of other women, like an arrow. Roger le Prince’s dancers all applauded, the crowd clapped too, and the drums went wild, as though the hands of ghosts were drumming. You could hear them the length and breadth of the district, they even woke the animals sleeping in the forest. The young village girl kicked up the dust as she danced. The wind blew so hard now, it lifted the pagne round her waist up to her chest, and you could see her red pants. Everyone stepped back, and gradually the levitation dance began. The old men of Kinkosso shouted for joy, and they danced too, happy to see that the dance was led by a girl from the village, and not that rude Roger le Prince. One of the old fetishers who had threatened Roger le Prince earlier in the day asked his colleague: ‘Tell me, whose daughter is that? What’s her family name again?’ Another replied ‘What does it matter? Who cares who it is and what her name is, I just know it’s she’s a girl from Kinkosso, and she’s leading the dance! So let’s dance with her! That rude little guy who claims he’s a prince is finished now! Shame on him!’ Everyone booed Roger le Prince. They all said he was useless. All this time, he was watching the girl with his arms folded. He turned to the chief drummer of his group. ‘Hey, who’s this stick insect coming on to me, who is she, she dances like a sparrow that’s just fallen out of her parents’ nest.’ The chief drummer almost shouted, ‘We don’t know her, but she’s got to almost 5 centimetres off the ground, you’d better do something or it’ll be a disgrace for us and the village of Ndounga!’ Roger le Prince made his mind up. ‘I’ll just have to go higher myself. After all, I’m the prince! Give me ten bars of mutuntu beat, the one Mubungulu used to play when he was alive, when he played for the dead in the Batalébé cemetery!’ One of his dancers was afraid. ‘You really want us to play that? It’s too dangerous! The last time we played that rhythm it almost got you killed!’ Roger le Prince was adamant.’ I’m telling you, it’s an order!’ And so the rhythm of the tam-tams suddenly changed. Even the sky started to stir, as though something might fall on our heads any moment. When the drummers beat their rhythm it was as though the skin of the drums was bursting and the clouds were parting. The villagers’ eardrums were fit to burst with the unknown rhythm, and they covered their ears. Up went Roger le Prince, up off the ground. He reached six centimetres, then seven, then eight. He never got up to ten, because the three old fetishers who’d been on at him earlier that day were upon him, tearing at their beards in anger. He came back down to earth, the old sorcerers sighed with relief. Now, behind them, the skinny little village girl from Konkosso had started dancing again, and now she was ten centimetres off the ground and all the villagers were applauding. Furious, Roger le Prince pulled himself up to his full height, span round in a circle, nodded to the drummers, who doubled, then tripled then quadrupled the speed of the lamented Mubungulu’s muntuntu rhythm. And there they saw Roger le Prince begin to rise, pedalling now, then up he rose, then pedalled again, then rose again, then pedalled harder and harder. We knew he must be over ten centimetres by now, but because no one believed it, there was now total silence in the village. They said it was the spirit of the grandfather of our grandfather’s that had hidden inside Roger le Prince’s body. The villagers were frightened and fled from the wake with their mats rolled up under their arm pits, with their wailing children. The dogs ran off into the bush with their tails between their legs, like wild beasts. Even the old men who’d challenged Roger le Prince and his dancers had gone. The corpse of our grandfathers’ grandfather was abandoned, and Roger le Prince had come back to earth, panting as hard as if he’d been lugging great sacks of potatoes for miles. He fell into a coma, the people in his group brought him round by throwing cold water over him. As soon as he opened his eyes he asked the drummers, ‘How high did I get?’ And they all replied in chorus, ‘Over fifteen and a half centimetres!’ He got to his feet, murmuring, ‘Let’s get back to Ndounga straight away, I don’t knows what’s happened here. I’ve never been that high before, I wasn’t alone, a spirit was pushing me, and I could have died, I couldn’t breathe properly up there.’ It was already past four in the morning when Roger le Prince and his group set off again for Ndounga. On the road they heard a strange noise behind them. They turned round, each one ready to run for it, as you do when you meet a devil out in the bush. The dancers had already scattered, but Roger le Prince stayed where he was and saw someone coming towards him. He shouted after the men who’d disappeared, ‘Come back! Come back! It’s no devil! It’s the skinny little dancer from Kinkosso.’
Maman Martine said, with a broad smile, ‘And that skinny little girl from Kinkosso was me…’
Then she burst out laughing.
‘Roger le Prince, what a gangster! He took my hand, all I said was, my name was Martine, but straightway he answered, ‘There’s a reason you followed me all this way. You are the future mother of my children. We’ll leave Bouenza, otherwise the old men in your village will be after us for the rest of our lives. We’ll go and live in the town.’ And so I followed Roger le Prince, because I knew he would be the father of my children, too, and that the grandfather of our grandfathers had given me a sign, because I’d never danced the levitation dance before that night and I don’t know what it was pushed me to step out of the line of women and start out-dancing your father. Destiny, that’s what they call it, it’s destiny.’
She finished scaling the fish and put them on the board. I can see her scattering them with flour and salt.
‘I’ll grill them in a while with palm oil, and I’ll make you a nice little tomato sauce. You’ll see, you’re going to love it.’
Before going to tip the bowl of water mixed with scales and blood into the gutter, she said, ‘I could have been someone different, you know. But perhaps this was the best life I could have had. I only stayed at school till the 4th grade, your father had his lower school certificate, and even studied at the high school in Bouenza till 7th grade. That helped when we came to live here: the Whites wanted people who’d been to school, especially with diplomas, like him. A few weeks after everything that happened in Kinkosso, Roger le Prince and I secretly boarded an Isuzu truck bound for Kouilou, making for Pointe-Noire. We needed to leave Bouenza without telling anyone. So we left just like that, each of us with a little bag. I was already pregnant, that father of yours is a real rabbit. I knew our life was going to change, and Roger le Prince got a job at the Victory Palace Hotel, just after Yaya Gaston was born. That has to be fate, don’t you think?’[/private]
Menengai, Alex our guide tells us, means “the place where God is not”. It is a word from the Masai, the great African tribe that traverse the land with their cattle, naming the places as they find them. Looking down into the vast green caldera, all that remains of the immense volcano, I can imagine the handsomely dressed Masai, their scarlet cloaks vivid in the foliage, and their great herds. A desultory drift of smoke catches Nick’s eye.
[private]“Is that from the volcano? Is it still alive?” He is almost excited. Alex tells him local people often go there to make charcoal.
No one lives in the caldera; it is too hot, too difficult to reach. There are no animals either. A few houses perch near the western rim, but mainly people live in the scatterings of buildings in the wide flat valley. On the way up the steep dirt road, we had passed through a village – painted signs declaring a primary school, a shop, and a hotel – at the point that Alex said was half-way. We had passed donkeys, strung around with empty 50 gallon plastic drums, walking in patience towards us. And women drudging, backs bent under sacking stuffed with charcoal or firewood, held to their bodies by straps around their foreheads.
At one point, the long dusty road had almost defeated Alex’s car. The radiator fizzed and boiled, and we sat in silence, listening to it, blocking the rutted track of fine golden earth. When it was calm again, he restarted the engine, and our sweat cooled on our skin in the revived breeze. At the top, Alex drew the car up in the shade of an empty kiosk. There were only a few stall holders, stone carvings and necklaces on display. Few tourists take the time to come to the lowering green ridge. There isn’t much to see, apart from the view itself.
Teenage school children mill in small groups around the edge of the crater. I take out my camera, still new, still expensive, wary of both the dust and the curiosity. Four girls appear in shot, as I line up the digital screen with the plain of Nakuru and Lake Elementeita beyond. Grouping together, they eye the brushed steel with envious curiosity in their open faces. Their uniforms are fresh, clean, and show no signs of wear, and their shoes fit their feet. These are children from well-off Kenyan families, and suddenly I don’t feel so bad about my own privileges.
The three of us slip and skid further along the rim, down a slope to a promontory. Underfoot are tiny pieces of pumice, light and aerated, in shades from yellow to grey.
Nick falls over, almost pulling me down with him. Sparkly flip-flops were not the best choice of footwear today, and I take Nick’s arm, my camera in my other hand.
I had read somewhere that the Masai threw their dead into the crater, and the smoke is their spirits, rising to heaven. That was along time ago, Alex says. We are too shy, too polite, to ask if his own great height comes from Masai blood.
We pose for photos by a tall pole, painted black and white, with the Rotary Club wheel atop the crater’s vital statistics. It is 2,490 metres high, 12 kilometres across and 500 metres deep. Wooden arms cartwheel out, measuring monochrome distance to Rome, London, Mount Kenya, Cape Town and New York. As none of us live in any of these places, we mentally added our own. Edinburgh. Nyahururu.
“But isn’t Mount Kenya to the north east of here?” We have been there. The sign seems to point west.
“Yes. That way,” and Alex sticks out his arm, pointing the same way as the sign. My world flips and north becomes south, east becomes west, and the sun hangs upside down. I marvel again at how my internal compass is so unreliable south of the Equator.
The school children are moving off now, their black shoes and white socks grey from the cloud of dust which follows them at ankle level.
“Where is their bus?” Nick is concerned about them walking in the heat.
“We passed it on the way up,” Alex replies, “It was pulled over in the shade. Not far.”
The heat from the ground, from the air, is intense. We had left the town late as usual and I guess it is at least 11.30, maybe even heading closer to noon. Alex suggests that we walk along to the watch tower, and onto a high promontory, where the cliff face burns ochre, curving like the haunch of a lion.
The watch tower looks rickety, gaps in the platform floor visible from below.
We walk along the narrow rabbit tracks between the tufts of coarse grass, not making eye contact with the dirty tattered children standing in the shadow of the tower. We collectively tense in preparation for the usual mantra.
“Mzungu! You give me money! You give me sweet!”
But Alex speaks to them. He is Kenyan, after all, his very presence will prevent us from being harassed. And he would never pass a child by. His humanity overwhelms us, but we keep walking, eyes scanning for a good view to photograph, grateful that Alex is keeping the begging children at bay.
He re-joins us, looking concerned. “They are telling me that a child has fallen into the crater.”
A child? Who? When did it happen? Where is he?
He doesn’t know, but lopes over the ridges and rises of the hillside towards a group of adults who are standing at the edge of the cliff. We follow him, not really understanding what is going on. The group of adults are all men, and they have dogs and carry long staffs. We do not see their goats until later.
“I don’t like this,” Nick mutters, his face screwed up behind his hat and dark glasses, frowning against the sun. We draw to a ragged halt. Alex strides on. To us, the group looks menacing. They’ve seen our clothes, our sunglasses, our cameras. I feel vulnerable. It’s a trap, the small boys setting the trap for the compassionate foreigners. Is there really a child on the cliff?
The figures seem poised, as if in a tableau, embraced in the panorama of the greens and browns of the crater walls falling behind them. Alex is talking to them, vivid in his movements and actions beside their stillness.
Alex comes back, his stride swift and purposeful. “There is a child down there. They say he was sitting on the edge, looking over, and he lost his balance and fell.”
“Can you see him?”
“Who is he? Do they know him?”
“How old is he? Is he injured?”
Alex shakes his head, “No one can see him, and they can’t hear him. They think he is hanging on the rocks somewhere. They don’t know if he is injured.”
“When did it happen, Alex?”
We are poised for the answer, but we know it already.
“Just now. Not long ago. While we were here.”
While we were here. Present at the tragedy. While it happened. We become responsible – we feel it: but responsible for what? Whatever it is, we are responsible for something.
“How old is he, Alex?” We have to make his image even more real.
“About his age,” Alex indicates a small dust covered child dressed in a faded T-shirt and shorts of indeterminate colour. He is walking parallel to us, along the edge of the caldera, a stick in his hand. He looks about 5 years old, out alone, walking with purpose.
“Are his parents there?”
“No. He was alone. The other children know him, but he doesn’t belong to these people. He was just there, beside them.”
I don’t want to ask his name, but I don’t think that Alex will have asked anyway.
A plan is forming in my head, but how to get down into the caldera? Once there, how to get across to the cliff? Are we expected to do something? Or only to observe?
Alex is walking past us, away from the cliff, away from the child. We follow him silently, our cameras tucked away. We are embarrassed by them now. We have photographed the sweeping panorama of the cliff – what have we really witnessed? What images are hidden within the pixels? Somewhere, somewhere on these rocks, a tiny child is lying crumpled and broken, fear and pain surrounding him. He is crying, trembling, and tourists are unknowingly photographing him.
We follow Alex in silence, back the way we have come. The car is in sight, but I can’t believe that we are just going to leave. However, we stop by a group of men, sitting on a boulder, their binoculars looking back to where the small figures peer over the edge of the cliff. Alex is asking them if they can see the child. No, they can’t. They were told that he had fallen, and they are trying to locate him, but he isn’t visible from this vantage point. He must be round the far, unseen side of the cliff. People are still sitting and standing, they are looking over, but there seems to be no flurry of activity.
“Has someone called the police?”
Alex shrugs, “No one will call them because they will not come.”
What’s to be done then? Who will come? What next?
The three men with the binoculars have walked off towards the rim of the caldera. A woman tells me that last year a teenage girl fell over the edge and died. There are no barriers, no warning signs, no rangers or guards. It makes for a beautiful, uncluttered photograph. I shake my head in disbelief and say words like ‘unbelievable’ and ‘shocking’. Terrible. But these words have lost their meanings somehow.
Alex has his phone clamped to his ear, and I realise that he will know what to do; he will do something, and it will be all right. Alex shakes his head. “I am calling the police but no one is answering.” I know that he will keep trying. And I know that he is only trying for us.
What can we do? The sun is high overhead, draining, desiccating. Nick offers me his hat, but I refuse. How can I complain about the burning heat now? We sit down, one by one, on the spiky grass and knobbly pumice. The hot air weaves around us like a cloak. Like a Masai cloak.
We see the three men who have the binoculars, and they are somewhere between us and the far cliff, edging sideways down a more forgiving slope towards the valley. But it is still steep, rugged, and at any time any one of them could lose his footing and tumble, limbs flailing, onto the crater floor. That would be a visible tragedy to us, not like the ghostly boy hidden somewhere by the turning of the cliffs.
Alex confirms that they are going to look for the child. They are brave. He also says that he has spoken to the police now, and that they have said that they will come. We are waiting for them.
The men shrink to become the colour of their shirts, small bright shapes in the shadow of the crater. One breaks into a scrabbling run, and my heart flips, but he leaps onto a boulder, pivots and steadies himself, then moves on out of sight. They all vanish, and we sit waiting in silence.
The sun is burning my scalp where the hair folds away from the parting. I can feel my shoulders and my arms prickling. I am thirsty; I have the beginning of a headache behind my eyes. I have left my hat and water bottle in the car. We weren’t going to be long: there wasn’t much to see. It would feel somehow frivolous, disrespectful, if I asked Alex for the car keys to fetch them now. I must endure.
There is a group of pale middle-aged tourists over by the black and white pole now, posing for photos, as we had done earlier. They don’t walk to the watch tower. They don’t ask us how we are, or why we are sitting in the sun. It is as if only they exist to themselves. We are all invisible – the cliff, the boy, the men in the crater, the watchers from above.
I try to imagine the child again. He is lying on his back perhaps, frightened, winded, but alive. I submit to the heat of the equatorial sun, and the dusty thirst as if, in some way, I can at least take thispart of his suffering from him.
But I realise what I really want to do is to go. To leave. There’s nothing we can do anyway, except watch the rest of the tragedy unfold. Three men are now in the crater searching for him. Their height and strength make them more likely rescuers than I could be. It is the truth, but still I feel that it is an excuse.
In a swirl of dust, another school coach rattles into view. Eager faces lean out of the windows, but we do not acknowledge their smiles and greetings. We do not wave back, but watch them come to stand dangerously close to the edge, and wonder where their teachers are. Their white shirts look unnatural in these surroundings, and the girls have elaborate hairstyles. One of them has evidently asked what everyone is watching for, and she gasps and puts her had to her mouth, then tells her friends with wide-eyed excitement. They gasp, exclaim and stare at the cliff. The story ripples through the clustered groups, and then they are gone, back onto the bus.
The men appear to us on the crater floor, then disappear again around the curvature of the cliff. I feel that I should pray, but it doesn’t seem real.
Finally, I have to ask Alex for the car keys to retrieve my hat and water. This short burst of activity restores our energy, and we stand again, and start wondering where the police are, and whether the boy’s parents have been told. Alex tells us that several months previously, a tourist fell into the crater. Rescuers reached him within hours and tended to him where he was found. A helicopter lifted him out the following day. But no one will call the helicopter for this child. They do not even know if he is alive.
He has to be. We cannot be witness to a child’s death. This was not our purpose when we set out this morning.
Alex’s phone rings, the maddening chirrup that we usually tease him about. His words are short and clipped. He shakes his head, and – thrilled – we fear the worst. “The men in the crater cannot see him. He is hanging somewhere above on the cliffs, but they cannot reach him.”
No one can reach him without ropes. Who has ropes? The rangers at Mount Kenya, four hours away. No one has ropes here.
Alex tells us we should leave, and our relief is palpable, even as we despise ourselves for it.
We drive onwards, downwards, pluming dust behind us. Just below the turn and the dip from the top, I see a house that I had not noticed on the way up, built from stone, blending into the scenery. Approaching us from below, a ragged crowd of people are trying to run up the steep road. The man in the lead is stout, but propelling himself onward with a long stick. We stop, and his sweat-beaded face fills the open window. Others cluster behind him. They have been told about the child, a child from their village, and Alex tells them what he knows. People are still running, and a woman in a scarlet skirt is wiping her eyes as she hurries up the impossible slope in the heat. The community’s anguish and pain is visceral. They disappear behind us in our dust. We do not pass anyone else.
Alex has no answers for us, but asks if we will go with him to the police station. He tells us that if he takes us, two white people, the police will be more likely to act. We don’t want to believe him, but go with him willingly, with a feeling of purpose. We are doing something.
The police station is dark inside, despite its sky-blue walls. A crush of people is blocking the access to the desk, protected by floor to ceiling iron bars. A ripped sign on the wall tells us
It is your right to speak to someone here.
You are not expected to give a bribe.
Our presence attracts attention, and Alex uses this to press his case. We are ushered into a small room with many chairs. A man, who is not in uniform, shakes our hands. Alex explains the situation, and the man replies. We do not know the words they use, but can guess their meaning. All too quickly we are back out into the sunlight under the purple jacaranda trees. “He says that they will go,” Alex tells us.
There is nothing to say, nothing more to be done, and we each try to follow our way through the rest of the day. But every time we speak, all we can feel is a crunching between our teeth, the dust from the godless place.[/private]