Irish Girl in Africa

Irish Girl in Africa

Friday, September 19, 2014

Out of Africa

I woke up on Sunday morning before dawn with the sea lapping below me. I got up and sat on the veranda and before long a woman appeared with tea. I watched the sun come up over the Indian Ocean while my son wandered barefoot in the grass clasping his lamb teddy. I teared up at the thought of leaving this beautiful continent behind next week. 

I had spent that time before dawn thinking about all the things that are great about this place where I have spent more than eighteen years of my life, and thinking about taking my children away from the colour and warmth and the experience of it all. Malawi, Ethiopia, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho, Egypt, Kenya, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Mauritius and Seychelles - these are the places I have been able to spend some time. And Africa is not a country, but for the sake of brevity, just let me call it all Africa. 

It feels funny to write this, to spill all this cheesy love for Africa after shitting all over it for six years, but it does deserve praise. I can't deny that moment of huge excitement when I step off an aeroplane in Africa. Getting enveloped at the top of the steps by thick, hot air and the baking heat permeates through my shoes and I can walk across the runway with a freedom that I would never feel in a rule-bent Europe. 

I have a few key memories from the last six years that highlight what is brilliant about Africa. And like with everywhere, it is all down to the people. Lions, whatever. Waterfalls, yeah they're nice. But within an hour of arriving you will have met someone who will give you a laugh, even just by introducing themselves. When we first arrived in Lilongwe in 2008, the taxi driver that took us to the hotel was called Frighton. There are endless wanted ads in the paper for thieves called Innocent. Unplanned children could be called "Curse" or "We didn't want you, you bastard" in their mother's native language. Or that story about the guy called Elastic, whose last name is Banda.

Or they will give you a laugh, because they are hilarious. In Kampala, I paid a fiver to use a algae filled pool at a local hotel. I noticed a big, gross frog in the pool and went to tell the receptionist, who looked extremely concerned and came out with me to have a look. "This is terrible!" he said. I was surprised and delighted with his disgust. "This frog has not paid to swim!" and he laughed loudly as he flicked it deftly out of the net across the lawn.

In the main, the men you will meet will have smiles so big and white than you'll want to visit a dentist, laughs so loud you'll feel like a dry shite and a handshakes that requires the full strength and flexibility of your body to participate in. Saying hello is ceremonial. In Southern and Eastern Africa, shaking hands is handshake, twist hand up, squeeze thumb, handshake again. In Ethiopia, greetings are a fantastically complicated affair. You could say hello by touching opposing shoulders, by kneeling slightly, by shaking opposite hands but holding your own arm with the other hand. 

In the main, women are fierce and somber on first glance. "Why do women not smile very much here?" I asked once in Zambia. "Because their lives are very hard." Well, that's true. African women are astute, but once intentions have been established, they are soft and funny and open. I once approached the airline representative in Lusaka who had a face like a hippo with indigestion. She gave me my boarding card without a word but when I turned to leave, she called me back. She stood up behind her desk and leaned over, telling me to move back a few steps. "AY! You have a beautiful body!" and she called over a colleague who chimed in and they traced their hands in the shape of my big hips. They smiled and laughed and it was the only time in my life that someone had complimented me on my enormous ass. 

African women are flipping gorgeous. Beautiful skin, high chins and enviable posture that exudes strength and confidence. Being around a woman from Eritrea is a humbling experience, because it is incomprehensible that someone as beautiful could exist without make up and lights. 

The Diet Coke ad has nothing on the sight of an African labourer with natural, toned muscles, splashing water over his head and down the grooves in his back. The most handsome African man I have ever seen is the Maasai security guard at the local cafe his forehead adorned with white beads and his braids swishing behind him. I always give him a big tip for looking after my car because I'm shallow like that. 

People ask me why I don't like to dance. And I think it's because I have spent too much time watching people move like snakes, with quiet, natural rhythm, I've watched them howl and shake in an oddly graceful way, despite the primal nature of their dance, and anything less is pointless. One of my favourite things is the approaching sound of a truck or bus full of singers. They could be going to a funeral, to school, to work, to the end of the world. There could be five or there could be two hundred and all you can hear is perfect, pure, deep song.  

I suppose the best thing about Africa is the children. That is who will remind you of the resilience of human kind. In Gulu, Northern Uganda, I met children one night at a mission hospital in the town. Every evening, the children walked in large groups for up to three hours, barefoot, to sleep on the hospital floors and three hours home every morning - so that they could escape the threat of being captured by the Lord's Resistance Army to be used as child soldiers. And when we left in our big, white Land Rover they ran alongside it, laughing and smiling and waving - and their ability to extract joy from this occasion made my chest feel hollow, because Africa doesn't deserve those things, because it really is incredible.

After breakfast on Sunday, we packed up the car and headed back to the city. We waited for three hours with growing crowds at the ferry port, wondering what could be taking so long, the sunrise wearing off me. It turned out that approaching ferries had not turned around, so vehicles on board had to reverse off, one by one, up the steep ramp and long winding hill to the road. I was taking photos on my phone when the car got surrounded by guards who made us open and empty our wallets as a penalty for taking photos and they walked off, splitting the notes between them. 

And I thought - fuck this, I'm outta here.