Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Paradox of Africa: the Little Things

Have you ever noticed how it isn’t the big and obvious things that usually get you? You can dodge them, usually. But, little things, subtle things… They sneak up on you without warning and slay you every time. Like the tiny virus that throws you mercilessly recumbent in bed for days, too weak to write or read your blog post…

I have found in my travels throughout the world that some places lend themselves more to this kind of paradox. They lull you into believing that you have absorbed and mastered the Great Adventure, when, lurking in the depths of the small and subtle, the real adventure is about to sneak up behind you and slam you in the head. Africa is such a place. You look skeptical. Africa? The grand landscape, home of lions and tigers? Well, let me tell you a story…

When my friend, Margaret, and I first contemplated a trip to eastern Africa in 1986, we of course thought of the big things, the obvious things: roaming the vast expanse of the Serengeti grasslands with dangerous lions ready to pounce on us; being chased by a herd of rowdy elephants; or charged by an angry rhino. The danger. The thrill. The anticipation. We were prepared. No, we weren’t.

The little things caught up to us faster than we’d imagined possible. It started when we met the rest of our tour in the city of Dar Es Salaam. This “Haven of Peace” started as a fishing village when the sultan of Zanzibar developed it as a port and trading centre in the mid-19th century. The Germans then made it Tanzania’s capital and it was now a bustling 1.7 million people. Brows glistening with sweat from the heat, we negotiated Dar’s narrow streets and heard the sing-songs of Swahili and other languages amidst the murmuring sea of Bantu Africans, Arabs and Asians. The smell of diesel and rotting garbage mingled with the sharp undercurrent of exotic spices as I avoided making eye contact with the beggars crouched on the pavement. Swarthy men dressed in mismatched suits and smelling of cheap cologne sidled past us with curious glances. They might have just walked off the set of Casablanca.

After meeting our dozen tour companions, Simon, our tour guide, drove us in his converted truck to a campsite just outside Dar, where we pitched out tents just outside the Rungway Oceanic Hotel. In fact, we camped in the dirt parking lot and our timing was impeccable… Ramadan had ended and this once tranquil motel on the shores of the Indian Ocean was overrun by African Muslims drinking Safari Lagar, chewing on nyama choma (barbecued goat’s meat) and listening to taraab (sung poetry) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. As I tried to fall asleep to Beat It, my imagination reconstructed the wild Africa of my girlhood dreams: waves of wild grass swaying in the hot wind; roaming lions, elephants and giraffes; the wailing laugh of the spotted hyena to the distant beating of native drums. I wasn’t there yet…

The following morning, with prospects of having to return to Dar to buy supplies for the next five weeks and obviously suffering from lack of sleep and jet lag, Margaret squinted up at me from her cot and moaned pathetically, “I want to die!” I reminded myself that this was just the first day of five weeks of tenting in Africa with Margaret and bridled in my rising panic with difficulty.

That afternoon, now deep in central Tanzania, the truck lumbered through endless expanse of undulating sweet-smelling savanna. Fields of tobacco, sisal, corn and plantains quilted the undulating landscape in a textured patchwork of color. I began to recognize the pungent stench of cooking plantain associated with the clusters of mud huts we passed. Whenever we stopped to make a meal, the wilderness yielded natives. A herdsman hugging a radio to his shoulder would appear and greet us. “Jambo!” Or an entire village complete with elders, children and dogs would approach and stare. It was during our first lunch stop that I began to appreciate the dichotomy between the grand Africa of my dreams and the real Africa I was in. It began with a heart-stopping scream. Dawn had slipped away into the bushes to do her necessary after lunch and was now screaming hysterically. I pictured a ferocious lion attacking her and felt my heart slam. Three of the young men jerked to their feet and ran into the bushes to rescue her. They all emerged, moments later, running toward camp and swiping at their heads. She’d disturbed a hornet’s nest.

As the day drew to a close, we set up camp in a clearing off a dirt road. We pitched out tents to the rich ochre of an African sunset and began cooking our supper of beans, rice and canned fish. Within moments of finishing our meal, a distant rumble alerted me and I saw headlight beams dancing as a truck bounced over the savanna toward our camp. It screeched to a halt and two men leapt out brandishing rifles. Simon, our tour guide, moved faster than I thought possible for someone with his frame and intercepted them. I later learned that they were South African guerrillas and we had strayed into their secret training ground. They spoke gruffly to Simon in Swahili and he cajoled them, gesturing to us. Margaret and I exchanged glances. Simon then turned, his face tight, and tersely commanded us to break camp. With a glance at the armed men, I raced to the tent with Margaret at my heels. As I pulled my cot apart I discovered an eight-inch millipede slithering underneath. After a moment’s hesitation, I touched it with my boot and it coiled up into a ball and wouldn’t move. How was I going to get it out of the tent in short order? With no time to think, I swung my leg and kicked it like a ball out the tent door just as Margaret appeared. The creature whizzed past her head like a Frisbee. I had to laugh hysterically as she gave me a dark look. We threw out tents into the back of the truck and piled in. I watched the other truck following us for some miles before vanishing into the deep night. While I appreciated the danger we had just averted, all I could think of was the millipede under my cot. If we hadn’t been ousted by these men, I’d have shared my cot with it that night!

The ultimate assault of little things came to us in the least likely or anticipated place: the Serengeti National Park. Named for the African word that means “great plains” this game park spans across 14,763 square kilometers and provided me with a glimpse of what much of East Africa must have looked like before the “great White hunters” and the encroachment of wilderness habitat for subsistence farming. Serengeti National Park is Tanzania’s chief tourist attraction.

We’d set up camp just outside the gate to the park on a rolling plain dotted with thorn trees. The setting sun painted the trees in shades of gold and cast long shadows across the tawny landscape. A stillness coiled in the air and I felt my girlhood dream Africa unfurl before me.

As usual, several natives appeared and gazed at us with curiosity. They tittered and I felt uneasy under their derisive gaze, like we were the brunt of some joke. The night was warm and several of our party decided to sleep on their cots under the stars, protected by mosquito nets. In the deep of night, I jolted awake to Alison’s shriek. Ramon yelped, “I’m in trouble!”

Margaret and I scrambled up and peered out of our tent. A scene of mayhem met us. People danced wildly toward the truck, frantically swiping at themselves. Alison cried, “They’re in my HAIR!”

I shone the flashlight to the ground near our tent and sucked in my breath. The ground was moving. It shimmered with swarming ants. I’d heard of them. Army ants. They’re called driver ants in Africa. Until their larvae pupate and no longer need food, these nomadic colonies of ten to twenty million move to a new bivouac (underground nest structure) site every night, carrying the larvae with their mandibles. The huge colonies consume so much that they need to stay on the move. Driver ants have powerful mandibles and their massive swarms are known to immobilize and kill large prey. With a nod to each other, we bounded for the truck and found a spot to curl up for the night.

The distilled essence of Africa lies not with its magnificent wild beasts—the Africa of my dreams—but with its diverse people and its vast wind-swept landscape, punctuated with surprising moments of the mundane. Twenty years later, as I write this, I can still taste and smell the aroma of cooking goat, frying plantain and simmering sweet potatoes and the heady fragrance of cloves and coffee amid the bustle of a local market. The haunting cadence and rhythm of Tanzanian Neo-Traditional folk music, enacted spontaneously by young and old. The friendly and innocent faces of Tanzanian children, dressed in tattered rags and waving madly at our truck as they dashed to the road to catch a glimpse of the foreign white traveler. They were so poor; yet so rich, happy with so little.

Remember the little things.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Melanie Faith said...

Fascinating. I am envious of your travels and the timeless impressions left upon your personal tapestry of knowledge.

David Bradley said...

My wife and I honeymooned in Botswana, the Okavango Delta to be precise. It was astounding. So many memories and a diary I am yet to transcribe...this was 1992, so it's probably unlikely I'm ever going to get around to it


Jean-Luc Picard said...

A fine tour described by yourself. You explain what it is like so well.

sfgirl said...

Thanks, Jean-Luc. And Mel, you're a poet. David, it's not too late, my trip happened in 1986. It all depends on how good your diary is. Memory has a way of filtering out things too, leaving only the most important impressions, the ones that speak to us and stay with us

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Jambo, Nina
The paradoxes you describe, well at least a few, are seen closer to home too. Where I sit now in San Pedro, Belize, I see the affluent, very affluent, and the locals with their splendor of colour (Canadian spelling, eh?) in culture and third world housing. Your African safari has travelled with you a while.
see you soon!
Captain Herb

sfgirl said...

Hey, Captain Herb! It is so nice to hear from you! Looking forward to seeing you soon too!

SciFiDrive said...

A beautiful weave you make of your Africa journey kudos!

sfgirl said...

Thank you, Scifi drive! It was a journey of a lifetime... I recognize that now, twenty years later. Did I know it then? Probably. Sure glad I kept a journal!