Once upon a time, in disconnected moments and mixed up places, fragments of a story murmured through the thoughts and questions and dreams of a jumbled world. It was a story of somewhere else in some other time and some other way of being – an origin story, alive in the present, which all seemed to know but none had seen. A myth.
A Moroccan colleague at a school in Casablanca found out that I had grown up in Congo and Cote d’Ivoire. We sat together in djellabas enjoying lemon-chicken tajine with hennaed hands and she looked at me with wide eyes and a smile and asked, “What was it like in Africa?”
A school director offered me a job. “We would love to have you come teach at our school in Nairobi. You need to know though, Kenya is ‘Africa Lite’. Like a light beer. It’s not as heavy as other places in Africa. Easier to live here. But with all your experience in ‘real Africa’ I’m sure you’ll be fine.” I just smiled slowly and nodded. “Thanks …”
A famous South African comedian asked an audience member if he had ever been out into Africa. The audience began to laugh. “No, no! The reason I say ‘into Africa’ is because this … is not Africa … No, no, this is ‘Africa Light’ guys. Don’t get it twisted. When I say ‘Africa’ I mean AFRICA Africa – no jokes people.”
Not so long ago, on a trip to Harare, I fell into conversation with a Cuban-born Spanish-Bulgarian who had been raised in Zimbabwe. “So how are things in Kenya?” he asked. “I was in Mombassa about 20 years ago. I bet you get more of the real Africa there. At least, that’s what I remember.” As he began to reminisce about bright beaches and wide plains and open-air markets, his voice seemed to fade and my mind got stuck.
REAL AFRICA … What is this story that everyone seems to know or want to know? Where does it come from? In Morocco, it is beyond the deserts. In Nairobi it is beyond the cities. In South Africa it is north towards Botswana and Zimbabwe. But in Zimbabwe? What could be more “real” than Zimbabwe? And yet the gaze looks ever out. Even that which is ‘real’ is still light compared to something else that is more real. But what is it? Where is it? Tourists believe they’ve found it. Long-time residents wonder where it has gone. Locals wonder what it is or ever was.
Where is the Real Africa? What is this story? Who was the first to whisper it into the global imagination? To give it interchangeable names and places and call it One? Perhaps some intrepid traveler long ago caught a snippet of a Story and took it away. Cut from its source, the snippet became known as the Real, rippling through generations of memory while the source itself continued to change. The One Story split and spun into a thousand new stories, but these children of the One look so different from the first that they are dismissed as echoes, invalidated as empty reverberations and left behind in the search for the source: the imagined One and the only Real.
But the Real is now and it is many. It is desert and mountain, jungle trekking and snow skiing. It is savannas with wildlife and poachers and cities spreading in all directions towards the parks and fancy tourist camps and nomadic herders wearing bright beads and robes with cell phones tucked in the folds who drive their cattle along the fences that cut the land. It is villages of mud-dung huts with corrugated tin roofs owned by farmers who grow less food so they can grow more tobacco which they sell to one multi-national supply chain in order to pay off their debts to the another and buy the food they did not grow. It is vibrant cities with beautiful buildings and banks and bars and rhythms of traffic so dense that walking three miles is faster than driving. It is freedom fighters and dictators and multinational corporations, businessmen and political women and village chiefs in three-piece suits. It is ancient stone churches and temples and high priests of new orders, masked dances and trances and urban rave scenes with synthetic-drug runners. It is fourth- and fifth-generation immigrants who still have to explain their presence and foreign-educated nationals who do not speak the language of their families. It is shopping malls and open-air markets, overflowing with cheap imports and expensive donations. It is vegetable vendors and curio shops, post-modern artists and international musicians, hand drums and electric guitars. It is child soldiers and child inventors, warlords and technocrats, rural volunteer doctors and manipulative pharmaceuticals, old diseases and preventable deaths. It is creative, persistent life.
There is no One. The Real is now as it always was – a tapestry of stories. Unraveled and respun, you may find her threads, but never the first nor the first whole. It is many threads of many colors spinning ever together and apart. No thread’s color, warp or weft makes any other’s less true. You cannot grasp a thread and call it the whole. Nor can you know the whole without tracing its threads and discovering the array. The One is many, it is never the same, and it is as Real as the moment in which it lives – that is now.