January 23, 2009
How was Africa?
Do you miss it?
Would you go back?
The questions feel like nails being hammered into my bones. Come sit with me for three days, and I will tell you how Africa was. I will tell you to help myself remember the images that I hoped would remain more vivid in my mind.
I’ve been home for two weeks and coming back to Canada was like pulling on a pair of old jeans. They’re familiar, comfortable, but they just don’t fit the same. I pull at the frayed edges and wonder how to make myself fit into the familiarity again.
I walk to work with gloved hands shoved deep in my down jacket, thoughts still distilling in my head. The faces smile before me, I see the tiny hands waving “Bye,” and I ache for the dogs that stayed at my feet and for the cats that curled up beside my ribs. The end all came so quickly, like a house of cards in a gentle breeze. Africa disappeared under the wings of the plane and I cried watching the lights of Entebbe fade, the kind of tears that run down your cheeks and neck. Wanda said I was grieving like I’d lost a lover, and I felt like I had. Africa was like a lover to me.
The parts that would remain and stick to my heart ping-ponged through my head as we touched down in Amsterdam. Walking stiffly out of Centraal Station, the angry cold bit at our faces and the bare skin that my t-shirt didn’t cover. My jacket felt like a stiff frozen nylon sheet in the crisp morning air. The sky was still coal black, our breath left clouds when we spoke. The warmth of the African sun escaped my reach in that moment. I was shivering inside a bakery with snowflakes still on my lashes, a puffy croissant and milky tea in my hands, my landscapes changing so rapidly. In another nine hours it would happen again. The world that seemed so small with skype and facebook felt too big again.
Of course I am relieved in many ways to be home. I feel safe. I feel clean. I have Wanda, white socks, my dogs, electricity, water that I can drink straight from the tap and a reliable internet connection. Finally, my poor mother can stop writing emails in capital letters. I HAVEN’T HEARD FROM YOU IN THREE DAYS. REALLY STARTING TO WORRY. I would be surprised to learn that she had any fingernails left, especially after conflict in Goma (Congo) smacked the headlines on a daily basis. At that time, anywhere in Africa was too close to Goma for my fretting parents.
Deciding to go to Uganda and volunteer with the Jane Goodall Institute was one of the most remarkable decisions I’ve made in my life. And I can never make a decision. This is why I bought a VW Golf and a Suzuki Sidekick on the same day last year at this time. But that’s another story.
And what now? What will I do with those shiny four months of intrepid adventure, edible scenery and experiences that set my expectation level so high that I have to squint to see it again?
I will write, and edit what I already wrote (I think I may have said “f*ck” too many times in my journal for a general audience). And there are so many textures and sounds to capture: the violent electrical storms, the flat of the lake, the hum of the night market, ripe gooseberries and sweet mangoes, sunsets that set the sky on fire, chimps banging on the ironwood buttresses and the goosebumpy-thrill of following a family of mountain gorillas in Bwindi through a forest that dripped green. I can’t forget the taste of salty grasshoppers, the near-bloody battles with Immigration over my visa and the boda boda rides that left me with molars that should have cracked from clenching. It’s a movie reel of soft, blurry places and emotions: the sugary sands of Anderita Beach, the tall sugarcane plantations that I wished my grandfather could have seen, Merryde’s sleepy bed and breakfast in Jinja, mahogany trees taller than skyscrapers and the tiny, thieving hands of vervet monkeys on my bananas.
I think of the Uganda Wildlife Authority ranger who wanted to shoot Scrappy, making rum-laden egg nog that I hoped wouldn’t leave everyone sitting on a toilet, the dodgy massages that left me with hair like a bird’s nest and a slick of coconut oil that wouldn’t come off my body for days. There were boozy nights with Fiona and Lou, chatty road trips to Budongo with Carol that left us itching and bitching from tsetse flies and game drives in the company of strangers that made Wanda wish she had her gun.
There are nights that stand out, like when Merryde and I watched Venus, Jupiter and the moon align, the silvery reflection floating on the waters of the Nile. And the night I spent alone in the house without power, waiting for the ghost to knock on my door as the battery on my laptop flickered out. The memories collide together and I am floating on Lake Edward, the sky looking bruised and heavy with storm clouds and I am rendered speechless by a family of elephants impossibly close to us in Masai Mara. I hear the lion’s throaty roar, the hornbills in the trees, the plantain-eaters and baboons barking. I see the bats at dusk, taking to the hot pink sky and disappearing over the lake as the fishermen set off in their bobbing boats.
I miss Ruth’s chapatis and spicy beans. Her laugh that always made her bend over. The time she nearly killed us all off by thinking parsley seed was the same as coriander. God, I miss Scrappy and his scrawny little body, the way he would prance like a deer and howl at a closed door. He never wanted to be left out. Even if I was showering.
And Tinker, his precious ‘fetch face’ as he approached me with a stick smaller than a match. He would even bring dead cockroaches, anything, as long as you would throw it. Then there was Levi, the biggest suck of all, who would huddle and shiver beside me with every crack of thunder like a small child. The bed should have collapsed with the weight of three dogs and two tip-toeing cats who would also try to weave their way in under the mosquito net.
I think of all this as I walk. I want to keep walking, so I can stay in this world that was once real.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll look at the artwork that we bought from the AIDS orphans in Bwindi. I have some black and white portraits of Karen Blixen too (who wrote Out of Africa) that I picked up in the gallery at her homestead in Nairobi. In one she is standing with her beloved Scotch deer hounds—Parnia, Dusk and Dawn. I love the one of Denys Fitch-Hatton looking proud and rugged on a hunting safari in 1931.
I have pictures.
I have stories.
“Here now, sir, here’s something to take in the boat with you as you pass on to the other side. A line of poetry smooth as a pebble, a phrase bright as an insect’s wing, a clause transparent as snakeskin shed in the grass. Take these souvenirs, if you wish, you who travel forward, and keep them close to your heart as you move into darkness. You cannot take your gold and jewels, you cannot take your fossils. But you can take your stories across the water.”
— Isabel Huggan, “Belonging”
Yes, I have my stories from across the water.
And I am home.