Africa, Xanadu and homesickness


By Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series)



In the last few years I have made a few trips to East Africa, the most recent two years ago. These were supposedly purely business trips. In other words, largely uneventful forays, one that did not call for particular comment or detail when recounting my recent activities over dinner or drinks.

It has taken me aback, therefore, that whenever I have let slip that I had been back to Africa after so many years away, my friends have all been surprised that I did not speak at length about it. I have tried to explain that there were no Indiana Jones-type stories of adventure, nor any Bruce Chatwin-like moments of one-ness with nature, nor indeed, Naipaul-esque schisms of disharmony between the traveller and his muse. It was work.

To understand where I am going with this, I perhaps need to remind some of you that I grew up in Nigeria. Africa is to me the basis of all my childhood nostalgia. I wax lyrical about its weather, my friends, the trees, the harmattan, the smell of the first rain. In my dreams I often end up there in search of long-estranged friendships. But I left partly out of a sense of being on the periphery, of not being African enough, that my future lay elsewhere, that being a minority could be overcome if I left.

It is also true that I have become somewhat jaded with travel. Living out of a suitcase quickly loses its charm. But there is also a psychological element to my increasing dislike for travelling. It accentuates my lack of identity. My sense of unbelonging grows. I sense the chasm between the people around me, and I become melancholic. I rejoice in my ability to feel at home wherever I am, and to find kindred spirits in remote locations, but as the days go by, I also feel a deep foreboding loneliness. I am an alien, a cultural mulatto, a person with divided loyalties and multiple histories, and this alienation grows with the years, and with every country that I live in. Everything is familiar, yet it is not. I am familiar to the people in the foreign land, yet I am not. I am neither fish nor fowl. It is a psychological thing, I know, but it feels real. I wish not to have to explain why I can walk the walk, and talk the talk, but I donít look like I should. Or why I can talk only some of the talk, and walk only some of the walk. As the length of an uninterrupted trip gets longer, I start to yearn therefore for a neutral place, that mythical Xanadu where I am me, and I donít have to explain. So I feel the urge to run, but I know on a rational level that there is nowhere to go. Xanadu (or even Utopia) is never nigh; I am stuck in a Kafkaesque nightmare. The gatekeeper awaits my death. Thus my tendency to seek the familiar by locking myself away in my apartment upon my return, or turning up at an old friends place, where I know no questions will be asked, and where I can roll up on the couch and reconcile myself to my existence.

But I digress. I began to realise that my reluctance to speak of this trip was more complex than a lack of excitement. I do not jump at opportunities to go to Africa, because there is something in my heart that holds me back. I have not been able to explain this, dear readers, until now, because I could not explain it to myself. Here, for those of you who have wondered, and even for those of you who didnít, is the result of my self-enquiry.

Returning to Africa was like playing Monopoly, coming back to 'GO' and collecting 200, but wondering, why? In some strange way, I had circumnavigated the universe and had returned to the home solar system, but not quite the same planet I had started from.

I must explain that West Africa and East Africa have -on the surface -little in common. In between the two coasts are several thousand kilometres of alien civilisations with strange and unfamiliar cultures. Central Africa, dark, mysterious and foreboding, is still the heart of darkness, a century after Conrad. There are no broad highways, nor indeed roads. I once attempted (in my more adventurous days) to plot a road trip from West to East, only to find that it was nigh impossible. In other words, these societies have evolved in glorious isolation from each other. Thus, no movement of genes, no common language. Except as a result of the dubious intervention of the Arabs who came to trade, buy slaves and who left Islam and Arabic words on both coasts. But even the Arabs did not traverse the direct route. East Africa was accessible by sea, West Africa across the Sahara.

I am trying to explain that, on the surface, there should be no sensible reason for nostalgia. Relatively speaking, East African food is dull and devoid of spice, except where Indian and Arab influences are significant. The people are slight, and not as robustly built. Swahili sounds completely alien, except again, for the influence of Arabic. I grew up inland, a thousand miles from the ocean, on the edge of the desert. Dar is on the ocean, green and tropical and lush. On the surface, it could not be more different.

Yet, miraculously, there is much that is familiar. Dar's streets are a lesson in post-colonial African politics. Azikwe Street, Samora Avenue. Names that I, as a teenage half-baked anarchist, memorised and admired, but did not wish to emulate. I could (and did) pick the stone, fling it in the right direction, but I had no appreciation of the reasons for my action, no true empathy with the cause. I cared, but only insufficiently, for the plight of the MPLA, or of ZANU, or the ANC. I listened to revolutionaries, and wished I could be heroic and revolutionary too, but I was more concerned with the selfishness of self-discovery that being a teenager is normally about. I had not the stomach for a real fight, or the conviction of belief, a matter of eternal shame for me.

Yet, despite the gap between the two coasts, there is - it seems to me - there is the same inextinguishable sense of optimism, but this is driven partly by a powerful sense that the present is all that matters, and if that is good, all will be well. This makes for an appreciation of kindness, a generosity of spirit, and everyone knows the value of a belly-shaking laugh. Silly things like money are all very well, but camaraderie, kinship and clans mean much more.

These are features which I have found constant through Africa and Africans, makes me painfully homesick, but it also makes for poor economic and social planning, and a naÔvetť that everyone else must surely share the same joy of life, and its intrinsic value in the present.

The feeling that keeps me away - has kept me away for so long is that of complete helplessness. Africa - west or east -seem to me to be a cauldron of shattered dreams, a continent of anguish, much self-created, some brought on by foreign conquering races. The good things also, simultaneously, make for so much sadness, strife and self-inflicted suffering. Africa seems to live with all its imported institutions, welded improbably and unsuccessfully to all that is traditionally good, and all that is historically ugly. There is a new culture, mutated, torn betwixt the harsh noonday sun, a bountiful and rich land, and the weight of the white man's burden. It seems to me that Africa stands solid, silent and toothless brushing away its history with disdain, caressing its today's with a warmth of a hundred thousand fires. Why we cannot help ourselves to step away from the pool of blood and ash where the carcasses of Africaís tomorrows and unborn dreams lie, I cannot fathom.

It is this sense of pessimism that makes me wring my hands, that makes me avoid visiting Africa, coupled with the sadness of being personally torn between my past and my present, of being neither here nor there, and permanently neither African, Asian or European. That when I go home, I will not be, that my voyage through strange lands, peoples and universities will have made me more of a stranger than when I left.