My inspiration comes from Isak Dinesen, the Danish writer who began her celebrated memoir — Out of Africa — with an unforgettable and poetic line, “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
Once upon a time, I had a house in Africa,* at the end of a long and dusty road, in the sparse capital of what used to be Upper Volta. From the accents of people who work in government ministry buildings to the broad thoroughfare that sweeps through the center of town, signs of former French colonial influence crop up everywhere in Ouagadougou.
But that avenue ends abruptly at a dirt track leading into the endless bush. There, I could turn and gaze back at the modern road, its pot-holed asphalt spotted white, from the fecal droppings of hundreds of hooded-eyed vultures perched on dozens of broken street lights bowing over the boulevard.
Being an expat in road-deprived West Africa is a far, far different experience from being an expat in France or Italy or any other European country. It’s finding red dust in the refrigerator when the Harmattan blows the precious topsoil sky high. It’s waiting for the rainy season to begin, all the while watching the scrawny river turn to crimson mud. It’s about food shortages, where there’s no waxing eloquent about the plump organic tomatoes or the superb grass-fed and tender beef in the bright and busy farmers market. Rather, to be blunt, it’s a battle to ignore the tough meat and the flies and the running sewage canals in the street and the lack of water for bathing. It’s seeing my favorite market woman shrivel away before my eyes, from AIDS or malaria or tuberculosis.
It’s much more, yes, in a place where — it is true — death shows up and grabs whatever souls stand in the way.
In the stark landscape of West Africa, often the only color on the horizon is the sunrise and the colorful batiked cloth swaddling the women walking along the side of the road, lugging enormous water jars, carrying firewood, or wrestling with woven baskets, wide and filled with vegetables or chickens destined for a market miles away. Their feet betray the hardships of poverty — many simply walk barefoot, rough calluses protecting tender skin from the stones and thorns hidden in the ochre-colored earth.
Yet, there’s something gripping about Africa, still painted as the “Dark Continent,” now smeared once more as the frightening place that conjures up diseases like Ebola, a place of blood and death. Birthplace of the human race, it seems metaphorical in a way that Africa often manifests the rawness of life at its most basic. The impact of so many years of colonialism, racism, tribalism, and just plain indifference on the part of the rest of the world, all these factors affect the way the media portrays Africa.
And yet there’s so much beauty there, so much that is good, a spirit of being that ties many things together. The true nature of Africa lies in places other than roads and buildings and markets, the markers of so-called civilization.
Conveying the essence of a place like Africa calls for descriptions much different from those extolling the ecstasies of living in rural Italy or the cosmopolitan streets of European capitals. Some authors have tried to imbue Africa with a sense of the mystique. Dinesen is one of those writers.
Seeking some sense of connection, I believe, Dinesen wrote,
If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?
I now find this passage not so much romantic as arrogant. So much writing is indeed a “song of myself.”
And yet, it is true, the expat’s memories often center on oneself.
But how could it be otherwise? The self is the lens through which the expat views dissimilar cultures. As I explore memories of that house and that dusty street, I am no different. My most cherished memory — one that illustrates the goodness of people regardless of time, place, religion, tribe, or nationality — comes from the story of two terrible wounds.
Each of these wounds played a role in what finally happened.
The first wound happened one morning, when my houseboy Michel shoved his index finger under my nose and told me that he’d smashed it in the kitchen door of our house. I told him to go immediately to the doctor and get it looked at, imagining, in my Eurocentric mind, that he would bypass a native healer and go to a Western-trained doctor. Unfortunately, he sought out the ministrations of the former. The short story of a long and painful month is that Michel’s finger became septic, a European-trained doctor I took him to said he would amputate the finger. I couldn’t accept that—what, I asked myself, would life be like for a poor man like Michel after that, deformed and possibly in pain for the rest of his life? In desperation, I begged the Embassy nurse Paulina for help. Bless her, she found a young French doctor finishing up his medical service, who agreed to see Michel. Together they saved Michel’s finger. I drove him to the Embassy every day, the doctor debrided his finger, and with help of antibiotics which I administered to him every day, Michel did not lose his finger. The doctor’s payment? Only a bottle of whiskey.
A freak fall on a wet floor caused the second wound, a serious fracture of both major bones in my left wrist. So badly shattered were my bones that the French doctors at the local hospital despaired of treating me and told me that my only hope of avoiding being permanently crippled would be to go to France for treatment. That night I slept under heavy sedation in Paris. Surgery and convalesence took eight weeks. I couldn’t go back to Africa all that time. And so the Embassy removed me from my job as Commissary manager. When I returned, I went to the Commissary to pick up some of my things.
As I walked through the gates of the Embassy, toward the Commissary, over 50 Burkinabe men stood in two long lines on either side of me, all shaking my hand or bowing with their right hands over their hearts as I passed. I really did not know why they did this, or how they knew I would be there at that moment, but I imagined it was because I’d helped Michel. Or maybe it had to do with the fact that we’d all exchanged smiles and joked together in the past. All I know is that I’d never felt so welcomed home in all my life.
I had a house in Africa at the end of a long and dusty road. There I learned of the goodness of people and their acceptance of the Other. A profound lesson indeed.
*Africa is many countries, with many different geographies. When I speak of Africa in this piece, I am referring to West Africa.