The first time I saw Africa was not looking out the window as I flew into Nairobi. It wasn’t when I got off the plane in Jomo Kenyatta Airport late in the evening to the cool air and the smell of charcoal smoke. It wasn’t the next morning waking to the cawing of the large ibises that are ubiquitous to Kenya. It wasn’t even the next day when I stepped off the next plane into the suffocating heat of Juba, South Sudan. The first time I saw Africa was several days later.
In the book, “Heart of Darkness”, Joseph Conrad writes of nineteenth century travelers, “Most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them-the ship… In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, and changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance… A casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing.”
I believe this to be the case as much today as it was in 1899. People like the idea of seeing another culture, but would rather do it as one looks at fish in a bowl. This is why cruises are so popular. Go to a new place every day, take the sanitized, expurgated tour designed to solidify preconceptions and stereotypes you came with, and at the end of the day be safely back within the insular confines of familiar comforts.
This is why the first time I saw Africa was several days after I got there. It was when everything familiar was left behind that I really saw Africa, and it was a day I will never forget. It was the day that I realized this was not a one time event, but something that was to become part of me. It was the day it occurred to me (because it hadn’t yet) that I would be back many times.
The day I’m referring to was about my fourth day in South Sudan. We originally had no plans to go where we ended up going, but the pastor we were there to visit arranged for us to go and visit his home village, about a three hour off-road drive from Bor, where we were staying. That day I saw things I never imagined I would see. The cattle herders herding cattle with horns so immense it’s hard to imagine how something could carry something that large. The grass fires rolling across the plains, set by people deliberately to renew the land with fresh grass for the next season. We met the chief of the village of Liliir, a man with three wives, seventeen children, and I’m not sure how many grandchildren. He had been the chief of this village of 60,000 for fifty years, and ruled not with an iron fist, but with wisdom and respect. I met a man who was 110 years old that day, and who could remember when the British colonialists came. His wife was much younger, and when I asked to take her picture, she hurried into her hut to put her best clothes on. As we traveled back that day, by chance we came across a gathering of two cattle camps. They were there for South Sudan’s favorite sport, wrestling. We asked the driver if we could stop and watch, and the cattle camp got the first foreign audience they had probably ever seen. It was absolutely amazing. That was the day I became immersed in the culture; where all the familiar was left behind and I was able to experience Africa as part of Africa, and not through the glass. It was a turning point for me, when the foreign became not so foreign, and my worldview changed. It was the reason I write this blog today, and the reason I’m going back to Africa in less than two months.