"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, December 13, 2018

African Dreams–Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places

While the slave trade had operated from both coasts since the 1500s, Europeans never ventured into the interior, relying on African middlemen to buy directly from tribal chiefs who had already enslaved their enemies.  Tribal warfare was common in Africa, and the capture, sale, and barter of captives was common.  The Atlantic trade was directly by Europeans through African wholesalers, but the Indian Ocean market was operated by the English but also by Arabs who had a lucrative market in the Middle East.

Mungo Park was one of the first European travelers to explore central Africa and his adventures were recorded in a series of books chronicling his journeys in the late 1700s.  In The Life and Travels of Mungo Park in Central Africa he provides a firsthand account of life in heretofore unexplored regions of the continent.  The story was not pretty.  In fact, it was savage, brutal, and primitive.  He himself had been captured many times, bartered as a slave, and only escaped death because of his value as a European and for the clothes he wore.

The eunuch and his four followers were here butchered, after a very slight resistance, and stripped within a few yards of me: their cries were dreadful; and even now, the feelings of that moment are fresh in my memory. My hopes of life were too faint to deserve the name. I was almost instantly surrounded, and incapable of making the least resistance, as I was unarmed, was as speedily stript; and whilst attempting first to save my shirt and then my trowsers, I was thrown on the ground. My pursuers made several thrusts at me with their spears, that badly wounded my hands in two places, and slightly my body, just under my ribs, on the right side. Indeed, I saw nothing before me but the same cruel death I had seen unmercifully inflicted on the few who had fallen into the power of those who now had possession of me; and they were only prevented from murdering me, in the first instance, I am persuaded, by the fear of injuring the value of my clothes, which appeared to them a rich booty,--but it was otherwise ordained.

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René Caillié travelled to Timbuktu in the early 1800s and was the first European to explore the Sahelian interior.  Sir Richard Francis Burton, perhaps the most famous of African explorers, travelled extensively in the interior of East Africa in the early 1800s, searching, with Speke, for the source of the Nile.   Both Caillié and Burton relied on disguise and language to make their way to the holiest places of African Islam, while Park – a very innocent and naïve traveler – made no attempt to hide his European background nor the reason for his travels – to find the source of the Niger River.

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As a result, Park’s accounts are particularly compelling.  While Burton, always a careful intellectual (his books on his travels to Mecca, complete with meticulous descriptions of culture, tradition, society, and religion were academic staples in the early days of exploration), Park travelled headlong and in so doing became an unwitting and unwilling part of tribal conflict, slavery, and the trade in human cargo.

Park’s images of African savagery confirmed whatever impressions Europeans had of the continent and certainly contributed to the more exaggerated cannibalistic images of the interior spread about, but there was no doubting his accounts.  Later travelers like Paul du Chaillu – a zoologist/explorer who intended to study gorillas, but whose accounts of the tribal culture of Central Africa were as troubling as those of Park – confirmed the internal warfare, slave trade, and primitivism of the region. 

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Joseph Conrad writing much later in the 19th century drew indirectly on these accounts when he wrote Heart of Darkness, a story of an English ivory trader at an outpost far up the Congo River in the interior who discovers the primitive and the savage within himself.  ‘The horror….the horror’, he says at the moment of his death when he finally understands human nature.  The African interior – largely unknown, mythical, rumored, but far removed from civilized Europe – was Conrad’s metaphor for this human primitivism.

D.H. Lawrence throughout his central works, especially Women in Love, explores human sexuality as a struggle between European rationality and cold logic and African sensuality and passion.  Only when the two were in perfect equilibrium could final sexual partnership and an emotional/sexual union be achieved. An African mask features in his story – it is a frequent and unsettling reminder of that part of human sexual nature which is essential but dangerous and destructive if not tempered or balanced by its polar opposite.

It was with this baggage that Arnie Frank left for Africa.  It was not a neutral place, nor a benign one, nor a predictable one; and he had managed to mix myth, metaphor, and chronicle to produce great expectations.  There could be no more romantic place.  If, as he expected, it would have the passionate primitivism of Conrad and Lawrence, the excitement of risk, and a cultural exploration that few of his colleagues would ever think of taking.  It would also be the third leg of his cultural adventures.  If India and the East were places of philosophy, cosmology, and ancient history; and if Latin America was environmental beauty; then Africa would be intensely personal, demanding, and unremittingly challenging.  India would always be for the eye-painter, impossible to take in all at once, demanding only in a sensuous and intellectual way; Latin America the Andes and the Amazon; but Africa would take a different measure.  There was no telling how Europeanized Africa’s tribalism had become, nor in what forms it might reappear.  Frank knew of Africa’s lawlessness and civil disorder, and had his qualms because of that; but he was no American naïf, assuming that the world was as sanitized and policed as his own.  He would be able to navigate or better circumnavigate problems if and when they arose.

There are still only two types of travelers to Africa.  First, American progressives who want, finally, to visit the ports of the slave trade and the apartheid-era South African townships, to do visible penance for the crimes of their ancestors, and to confirm their belief in the validity of African culture and civilization at least equal to that of Europe.  Second are safari and game park visitors who have always thought of Africa as a place first of animals, savannahs, veldts, and forests.  Other tourists are incidental – returning Peace Corps volunteers, academics completing their basic research on the African diaspora, musicologists, and linguists.  Most, since their objectives are clear, narrow, and achievable, come away satisfied.  They never expect to figure out the persistence of African under-development, Big Man tyranny, endemic disease and poverty – why Africa remains far behind every other continent in social, economic, and political development.

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Anyone who knew Africa at all knew that the fanciful, romantic ideas of Arnie Frank would never be realized.   The days of 19th century European adventurism, a by-product of empire, expansionism, and colonialization were long gone.  Africa had been mapped, surveyed, and chronicles – a continent to be dealt with and done with.  Tribalism – that potent, primitive, sensual, undeniable force of human nature – was, as Kurtz understood would never disappear; but would be tamed or at best sublimated.  More accurately, it was a persistent vestige of prehistory – isolated, animist, subsistence societies that had little chance of economic and social development.  It was that very primitivism romanticized by Conrad and Lawrence that would always hold them back.

Most importantly, those who had travelled to Africa with few expectations and out of professional duty, knew that decades of international ‘development’ had done little to encourage progress.  Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa were still overwhelmingly poor, corruptly ruled, inefficiently administered, grossly inequitable in terms of wealth and well-being – despite the billions of American and European assistance.   The donor’s geopolitical agendas had always taken precedence over development and governance.  They tolerated the likes of Idi Amin, Bokassa, Debry, and Mobutu because of oil, rare earth minerals, or strategic geographical positioning.

“Where”, Frank wondered, “should I start?”

He considered Mungo Park who started at the Atlantic and worked his way inland; so perhaps a soft landing in Dakar, and then trips through Mali, Burkina, and Niger might be a way to ‘penetrate’ Africa but not through the malarial swamps and forests of the Congo.  Until the very recent incursions of Islamic militants in the Sahel, the region was always safe and accommodating.  Religion was a matter of faith and some mysticism but never radical or threatening.  The arid climate limited disease, cities were small and manageable, and crime nonexistent or low.

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Southern Africa, depending how it was considered, was not really Africa.  Hottentots, Boers, and Zulus in a semi-industrialized, wine-producing state was not what he envisaged, too far from any of his mythical ideas.  He had no interest in visiting Angola or Mozambique, relatively recently emerged from civil wars and still badly governed, and too influenced by Cuba, Brazil, and Portugal to have rediscovered their traditional past,.

Needless to say, Arnie Frank ran into the same unpleasantness experienced by other African travelers.  Paul Theroux wrote Dark Star Safari and Last Train to Zona Verde, memoirs of trips down the African coast of the Indian Ocean and back up the Atlantic.  Theroux had been a teacher in West Africa as a young man and was charmed by its open sexual culture, generosity, and a society uncomplicated by Freud and Christian guilt.  At the end of his voyages of rediscovery up and down the coasts, he was disappointed, tired, disillusioned, and beaten.  Africa had become a different place.  Whatever tribal positioning had kept it cohesive and even remarkable had come apart.  Poverty, venality, corruption, and inefficiency were everywhere.

In Lower River, a novel, Theroux wrote about a Peace Corps Volunteer who had had a transformative experience in a small African village and who went back to visit many decades later.  The village had completely changed.  The formerly cooperative culture had become antagonistic, self-serving, and hostile.  He was at first welcomed as a familiar figure, but soon taken advantage of and threatened.  Soon he was seen for only what he could give. The story does not end well. 

The major cities that Arnie visited were crime-ridden, lawless, and malarial.  Nairobi, Kinshasa, Lagos, Abidjan, and Johannesburg were as violent as any American inner city.  If one had money or diplomatic support, one travelled in convoy with armed protection. If not, travel was discouraged.

The smaller cities like Bamako and Niamey had become threatened by Islamic terrorists, had garrisons of French troops stationed nearby, and were nervous, unpleasant places.  The rural areas were, as Theroux described, unhappy places of persistent poverty and little opportunity.

Africa had been left to founder, plundered by the autocrats who governed, supported by politically driven donor interests who had little interest in serious ‘poverty alleviation’ or social progress and more in domestic political priorities, and ignored by everyone else.  Only if Africans crammed into country craft to make their way from Libya to Italy or rioted in the northern suburbs of Paris did anyone pay attention.

Arnie Frank travelled to Africa a number of times, refusing to give up; but upon more serious reflection, give up what, exactly? Myth can only be sustained by mythical expression.  Religions founded on myth but responding to emotional, social, and political needs have prospered.  More fanciful folk myths have disappeared.  The once-current idea that myth is essential to human society proposed by Joseph Campbell has long faded as social currency.  A more practical, no-nonsense reality has taken its place.

Myth plus romance has no chance whatsoever; and Arnie should have known better, product as he was of relativism and a good education. So he, like most, had given Africa his best shot but concluded like those before him that if there was ever a uniquely important, potentially significant, and powerful culture in Africa, it had gotten distorted out of recognition.  For the time being at least, it was a place to be avoided.  How he had been infected with such romantic idealism, no one knows; but at least he returned to earth only disillusioned, not disheartened.

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