Into Africa

by Oakland Ross

Consider the Zambezi.

From its headwaters in northern Zambia, the fourth-longest waterway in Africa wanders south and then east, tumbles over Victoria Falls and washes into Lake Kariba, where it loops north toward a town called Chirundu, later arching through Mana Pools National Park and across the breadth of Mozambique, on its long journey to the Indian Ocean.

If you were to travel by canoe along a typically splendid part of the river's course - from Kariba to Chirundu, say - you would find yourself transported for several days and nights into an African version of heaven, slipping past papyrus reeds and paw-paw trees, past pods of wallowing hippos, where waterbuck and kudu wander down to the shore to drink, sheltered by groves of Natal mahogany and tamarind trees.

Baboons probe among the rocks for scorpions. Crocodiles laze upon the sandy banks, before suddenly slithering to life and knifing beneath the water's dark surface.

You would also encounter people. Along its northern banks, the Zambezi streams past a succession of scattered villages, inhabited by Tonga-speaking country folk who dwell near the river's shores in mud-and-wattle rondavels with thatched roofs and swept earthen yards. They support themselves by farming and fishing.

In the quiet of the late afternoon, the women gather by the water's edge to bathe or wash their clothes.

Young girls parade along the high clay banks, with baskets of vegetables or bundles of firewood balanced atop their heads and their arms swinging freely at their sides. Silhouetted in the amber light, they resemble rows of African hieroglyphs, conjugating verbs with every stride.

The men crouch in dug-out canoes, dangling their lines in the quick, green river, while gaggles of barefoot children dart down to the shore to clutch hands, perch on tiptoe and wave at white-skinned strangers as they paddle past upon the water.

"How are you!" the children cry. "How are you!"

Just fine, actually - thanks to fate or luck or both. If only the same could be said of Africa.

Maybe, in a way, it can.

True, the grim tide of news from the world's poorest continent is already drearily familiar and seems only to grow drearier by the day.

War. Pestilence. Poverty.

Not to mention corruption. Not to mention downed power lines or shortages of cooking fuel or washed-out roads. Or tyranny. Or hunger. Or vanishing forests. Or encroaching deserts.

Not to mention vast legions of traumatized refugees, fleeing in terror from demons and guns.

Not to mention a hundred other ills that are not exclusive to Africa, although they surely seem to flourish there.

But consider the Zambezi River, and the Tonga people who dwell along its shores. Daily, they must struggle with hardships that most Canadians can barely imagine, but they do not seem to be immobilized by pain or grief.

Instead, their lives seem ordered, calm, imbued with purpose. They seem to be at peace with themselves, their communities, their world. They seem to be getting along ... just fine.

And maybe, in a way, they are.

For all the dreadful tales that come hurtling out of Africa - the horror stories that tend to dominate the news in Europe and North America - the truth is that the vast majority of Africa's 818 million people are not currently huddled upon some barren plain, their eyes large as plates, their bellies distended, their mouths dangling open, waiting helplessly for a salvation that may not come, while they waste and wither and die.

That is not Africa's reality at all. The reality of Africa brims with life far more than it cowers from death. We hear and read a great deal about the continent's dark side. Why don't we hear about the light?

Consider the voices of Africa.

The continent throbs with the sounds of countless tongues, all chattering, bickering, making love or merely passing the time, in nearly 1,000 languages or dialects in sub-Saharan Africa alone. You'd be hard-pressed to find many people on the continent who are limited to just one realm of speech. Routinely, individual Africans speak a dozen languages or more, a feat many Canadians would find positively unthinkable but few Africans regard as remarkable at all.

Consider what Africa wears.

In Nigeria, for example, or Cameroon or Senegal, an extraordinary proportion of the men garb themselves as if they were caliphs, bishops or merely garden-variety potentates.

They swan about in magnificent, loose-fitting caftans, often with fezzes perched atop their heads and not infrequently with ivory-handled swagger sticks clutched in their hands.

The women in many West African lands are even more resplendently arrayed, in elaborate wraparound gowns of flamboyant colours and headwraps that coil a metre high.

They look like ambulatory orchids, perpetually in bloom. In Uganda, the women of the majority Baganda tribe sway across the good green earth in billowing dresses called gosenis, in ebullient colours, with puffed sleeves and wide belts and often with sashes looped and knotted just below their hips.

Consider the sounds of Africa singing.

The music never seems to stop. From the soaring harmonies of a church choir accompanying the sunset in Kampala to the jazz-flavoured anthems of South Africa's Hugh Masakela, the continent is one gigantic musical stage, a song without end.

Africans can find music in anything - in an infinity of drums, finger pianos, the haunting, wooden-keyed marimba, the stringed koro of West Africa or the harp-like valiha of Madagascar. Without Africa, there would be no modern North American music - no jazz, no salsa, no rock - or at best it would be a thin, insipid thing.

Consider the people themselves.

If Africa is a beleaguered continent, poor cousin of the rest of the world, then someone forgot to break the news to Nigerians, who tend to deport themselves as if the planet's sole superpower had its capital not in Washington, D.C., but in a city called Abuja. The God who created Nigerians may be the same God who created inferiority complexes, but not on the same day.

While maddening at times, the prideful ways and haughty bearing of Nigeria's 90 million people - much remarked upon and often resented by Africans in other lands - really ought to be a cause for admiration.

With all of Africa's much-publicized troubles, it is downright invigorating to encounter a people who will not be cowed by anyone or anything, no matter what.

To some degree, the uppity ways of Nigerians are shared by people in neighbouring countries. American journalist David Lamb wrote an excellent book about his years in Africa as correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

He gave a name, or at least an acronym, to the sometimes-infuriating but otherwise impressive ability of West Africans to get the upper hand of visitors from other parts of the world, simply by being who they are and damning the consequences.

He referred to the phenomenon as WAWA - West Africa Wins Again. Time and again, it does. Other parts of Africa may lack for similarly beguiling acronyms, but they do not lack for people, beguiling or otherwise.

There is an unfortunate tendency among many who lead successful lives in prosperous lands to gaze out at less-fortunate folk in distant parts of the globe and to imagine them as being somehow dull and uninteresting, as having less substance or drama in their lives, as being unworthy of sustained attention.

Some North Americans, for example, will travel all the way to Africa in order to spend long days pinned to the back seats of Land Rovers, staring in rapture through the viewfinders of their video cameras at a glorious menagerie of African wildlife, while sparing barely a flicker of interest for Africa's people.

To put it gently, this is stupid.

Africa has produced extraordinary individuals, including politicians such as Nelson Mandela; clergymen such as Desmond Tutu; humanitarians such as Graca Machel; writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ken Saro-Wiwa; and journalists such as Zimbabwe's Geoff Nyarota, who has spent the last decade or so shuttling in and out of his country's prisons because of his insistence on reporting the news, in a land where this is deemed to be a crime.

Many remarkable Africans are sadly unsung. Consider Masipula Sithole, a Zimbabwean political scientist of penetrating intellect and a wonderful sense of racial fairness and gallows humour.

Sithole, who died of a heart attack only a few weeks ago, used to say that he didn't much care for what he called "that lovey-dovey stuff" - all the high-minded, liberal talk about harmonious integration of whites and blacks in Africa, just one great big loving family. Instead, he thought people should strive to be civil to one another, merely that and nothing more.

When you come to think of it, in a rancorous and quick-tempered world, being civil is probably challenge enough.

Consider another successful Zimbabwean, Amy Tsanga, who is a professor of law at the University of Zimbabwe and who almost single-handedly established an association of female lawyers in her country, where women face immense obstacles in their professional lives. She recently completed two years of teaching at the University of Maine, as a Fulbright scholar.

Or consider Noerine Kaleeba of Uganda, who 15 years ago inspired the long and continuing struggle against AIDS in her country, after she founded an agency in Kampala called the AIDS Support Organization.

Since then, she has seen more friends and colleagues die than it is bearable to imagine, but she hasn't given up hope of making a change for the better in an often bleak and parlous world. She now works in Geneva for the United Nations.

The list of accomplished Africans goes on and on. Some might say: Well, what do you expect? After all, with more than 800 million people, the continent that was once the cradle of humanity certainly ought to have produced an exceptional individual or two. And that is so.

On the other hand, consider how very young Africa is, really - at least in European terms.

For most of the continent, the first direct encounters with European culture date back little more than a century.

Political independence goes back only three or four decades and produced a continent of jerry-rigged states whose borders were hammered out by European governments, reflecting their competing interests.

What Europe left behind was less a coherent map of nations than a festering hodgepodge of dissected or lumped-together tribes and cultures - countries with no logic or reason.

You could say - and, of course, many do say - that Africa is beset by appalling problems. But you could also say the continent has accomplished quite a lot in a very short time despite ridiculous hurdles, many of them imposed from without.

Consider Mozambique. When this southern African land became independent from Portugal in 1975, it is said that the newborn country possessed just a dozen black-skinned people with university degrees - in a nation of 12 million or so.

This was not the fault of Mozambicans but of their Portuguese overlords, who had never counted the pursuit of higher education by Africans among their compelling goals.

Other newly independent countries were little better off, all desperately short of the skills and expertise needed to run industrial societies.

For these and other reasons, it is hardly a surprise that Africa continues to have its woes. What is remarkable is that so many Africans in so little time have managed so well, in European terms.

What of the others? Are they any less worthy, any less vibrant, any less deserving of long and dignified lives, simply because they lack university degrees?

Or live in mud-and-wattle rondavels with thatched roofs and swept earthen yards? Or support themselves by farming and fishing? Or marry and have children who dart down to the river's edge to wave and call out to the white people drifting past in glass-fibre canoes?

Don't they matter, too?

Never mind the obvious, high-minded answer about equal justice for all, regardless of race, colour or creed. That answer does not seem to have carried much weight in the world beyond Africa, the world that seems to be making a career of ignoring the planet's second-largest continent and its hundreds of millions of souls.

Think instead about individual hearts, individual lives.

Think about a young Zimbabwean girl named Phillipa Kambunda, whose parents are dead and who is being raised by an aunt who cannot afford to pay the girl's school fees.

As a result, Phillipa was forced to drop out of class and now sells vegetables in a country market near Victoria Falls, putting aside enough money to be able to send occasional letters or e-mails to a pen pal in Canada, in whom she confides about her life and her interest in literature.

Her letters sparkle with intelligence and wit, hope and fear, ambition and regret. Her favourite authors are "Danielle Steel, Stephen King, Sydney Sheldon, Jeffrey Archer, Milan Kundera, Joan Collins, Graham Greene, William Shakespeare, Vladimir Nabokov, Barbara Taylor Bradford and Charles Dickens."

Her heart is as full as any human heart. She is one among 818 million.

Anyone who has travelled or lived in Africa, and who has spent time talking and listening to people there, is certainly familiar with Phillipa or someone like her. She is Africa, and she is absolutely alive, absolutely real, albeit poor.

Just as Phillipa has been compelled to do, the vast continent of Africa is shouldering its many misfortunes, and it will have others to bear.

But Africa entire is not rotting away. Despite the deadly toll from AIDS, not to mention malaria or tuberculosis or dengue fever or sleeping sickness, Africa is not about to disappear.

Millions are dying - and this is both a tragedy and, in many ways, a crime - but millions are also being born.

In fact, demographers predict the continent's population, far from declining, will actually continue to increase. It will more than double, to 1.8 billion people by the year 2050.

Granted, in some countries, there will be an absolute drop in population. This is true of South Africa, for example, and likely will be the fate of several neighbouring lands.

There is no way of sugarcoating these losses. They could be moderated, and moderated substantially, if only the rest of the world truly committed itself to addressing Africa's plight, with money, expertise, drugs - with some constructive compassion.

But that doesn't seem to be happening.

Millions of people will therefore die, long before their time. Millions of children will be orphaned. A generation's worth of skills and education and experience will slip from a continent's grasp.

But Africa itself will remain. It will continue to occupy one-fifth the world's land mass. Its people will muddle through, those of them who survive or who have yet to be born.

They will do wonderful and terrible things. Their children will continue to dance upon the loamy banks of the Zambezi, waving at the travellers in their sleek canoes - the white folk passing by.

Toronto Star, 25 May, 2003