There is a lot of focus at the moment on the state of relations between black and white in the western world. I won’t get bogged in the debate because I’m too cowardly to risk articulating my ideas and having them skewed. It’s not what this blog is for and I’m glad to be able to step outside of that debate.
It is, of course, an argument that my status as a white man allows me to do that and I accept that argument. I am sad that it even has to be an argument. But I will say this to the people who tear down the statues: I think it is the wrong approach and I think it lessens the cause.
Stay with me.
Erasing the figures of oppression does not change history: an old Jamaican saying is “whatever don’t kill you make you stronger.” It is the defeat of prejudices and slavery and racism and segregation that makes the black community such a strong one. It is important to remember what was fought against to get where things are today. Progress has been made and continues to be made.
The statues of the patron saint always show George defeating the dragon. We don’t remove the dragon. To do so would be to ignore what a battle it was and what a victory was won. Erect statues of worthy characters, black and white; man and woman, that cast a shadow on the former slave-owners and show the journey towards the world that we want to see.
None of us is simply here; we’ve all had our battles and they are battles and adversaries that we should remember overcoming.
Africa 7 – Croc Valley
I slept but my dreams were filled with floating hippos and grunting crocs. At one point I dreamt that a herd of elephants stomped through our campsite and brushed the sides of our tents as we slept. It must have been a deep sleep for me not to decamp and huddle on a bench beneath a pagoda. But then I would have the baboons and spiders to deal with.
The sun had risen already and there was movement in camp, the tent was already feeling stuffy and I dressed quickly, rammed a hat on my head to hide the mess of my hair and scrambled for the zip. It smelled different here on the other side of the country. It was not the acrid smell of humanity but the softer, sweeter smell of the wilderness, I thought. Then I lifted the tent flap and was faced with a pile of elephant leavings as big as my rucksack. It still steamed in the morning air; two of my guy lines had been popped.
The elephants had passed in the night on their way to the river. Towards the end of our trip we were on the bus back to the campsite in Livingstone after the Zambezi sunset cruise when huge dark shadows loomed out of the dark, forcing the driver to slam on the breaks. Black silhouettes, a dozen or so, lumbered across the road without breaking stride.
“The elephants,” the driver said “they do what they want. They go where they want.” I loved that. We were utterly insignificant and the elephant was king.
It was what the other guests were here for, of course. To see the game in the reserve across the river. A swiss couple nearby had driven from Bern, all the way through two continents and still had a thousand miles to go. The odometer on the Defender had reached 380,000 and the Land Rover was still running as smoothly as when they bought it. A pair of French brothers bickered in another corner of the campsite and a family of large Americans sat on the stoop of a chalet and watched the monkeys.
It wasn’t why I had wanted to come to Africa, but it had to be done. It seemed a shame to come all this way and not load into the open back of a jeep and bump across the plains and through the forests to spot in the wild what most people would only ever see in zoos or on the television. And in fairness it was spectacular, if a little contrived. We saw the family of lions flicking their tails in the shade of the sacred baobab tree. Vultures perched on the white skeleton branches of a dead fig tree and watched us lazily.
We stopped for a stretch of the legs after a while and I braved a few steps away from the group to relieve myself behind a bush, all the while wondering what might be out there watching my skinny white behind and sizing me up as I willed myself to pee, despite the pressure. It reminded me of a time on the way to the cup final in Cardiff. I was desperate and pulled over at a service station that was milling with supporters from both sides but so twitchy and filled with anticipation that I could not go. It was the same here, though maybe the African wildlife was a little more civilised…
“How far are we from the campsite?” I said, meaning the relative safety of the other side of the river.
“Twenty miles.” The ranger said. He was a man of few words, like many that we were to meet in this country not yet fully woken to the lucrative tourist industry.
“And if I wanted to walk back…”
He laughed – and that Zambian smile finally cracked into life. He wasn’t laughing with me, of course – he caught the eye of his partner and they both laughed.
“Mazungu want to walk!?”
“No,” I said, “I just wondered what would happen if I tried.”
The pair of them laughed again and the kids in the back of the truck were enjoying the show.
“You would die.” He said.
It was what I was after. I was probing for juicy quotes and details that I could take back home and finally he got on board.
“So what would get me first? Lion? Cheetah?”
He shook his head. Serious now. “Most dangerous animal here” he paused for effect and the kids leaned forward in their seats. “Buffalo. Mean animal. If you get away from the buffalo, the elephants will have you. The cats, they run away.” I was impressed. We all were. He wasn’t finished though. “And if you do make it to the river and get past the hippos, which you wouldn’t, crocs. Crocs eat anything.”
I got back into my seat and fastened my seatbelt. The sun was falling and we parked up by the side of the river to watch it set over the water and to see the countless colours fade to shades of mist and grey. A long line of elephants, their shapes unmistakeable in the fading light, trooped past and the tremble of the ground sent me back to the road at the back of my house when the trucks roar past.
The next morning I sat on the decking which overhung the water and watched giraffes stoop and drink on the far side of the river. It had become unusually quiet; the monkeys had returned to the higher branches and I saw their eyes peering out while babies clung to the backs of mothers. A monitor lizard the length of a man skittered over dry leaves and through campsite.
I loved all of that but I was here to see the people. I wanted to learn from them and breathe in that spirit that I had seen in them all. In Kakumbi village I watched a boy pour water onto the ground and stab at with a stick, creating a muddy puddle. After a while he knelt down and scooped up fist fulls of the wet mud and smoothed it onto moulds. These he would leave for a while to harden before upturning the moulds and letting the blocks of mud fall onto the ground. He was making bricks. He was seventeen and spending his evenings and weekends making bricks so that he could pay his way through school.
We weren’t long in the village before a crowd of young children had gathered around us like a cliché. Each of us had half a dozen children clinging off our clothes and our fingers and all of them wanted to talk to us, to show us their houses and shoes. It was a beautiful village, if a little contrived like the safari, but these people did live in these houses and cook over these open fires – they just knew that they were also exactly what people like us wanted to see and were happy to put on the show that we expected. Maybe that is cynical. Maybe it downplays their sincerity. I don’t mean to do that. I don’t think I have ever met a more earnest people. Maybe, like the landscapes we had seen and the beasts we had got so close to, it was all too dream-like to be believed. My packet of Haribos was devoured within seconds, the way a bag of chips will be decimated by a flock of seagulls.
One thing that I had wanted to do above all things was to kick a football on African soil and as we drove through the village it just happened to be three o’clock on Saturday and on the outskirts a huge crowd had gathered to watch the local team play against a nearby rival. Supporters hung from the trees and all around the edge of the pitch. A penalty shoot-out was in progress but our arrival took the attention from the game and we were soon surrounded – an occurrence that we had become used to. It was the audience that I had craved and now I had no clue what to do: I had walking boots and every time I tried to kick the ball it flew away at all the wrong angles. I was quite useful with the old kick-ups but knew that this wasn’t going to happen. I had to think of something else so in the heat of the moment, with the ball in my hands and a crowd of hundreds around me, pledged to take the ball from one shoulder, over my head to the other shoulder and then drop it neatly on my head. I had never tried such a move and didn’t know if it was even possible, but it worked like a charm. I expect the Zambian national team to adopt the move and the legend of a white man in some remote village bringing it to the nation the way that John Miller had taken the beautiful game to Brazil.
Back at the camp we watched the sun sink over the river from the deck. The French brothers were still bickering like teenagers until the girl that was with them shouted for them to shut up and grow up. They both looked at her like scorned children and stormed off back to their tent while the girls strolled by the river and smoked a cigarette. In the meantime a family turned up; I recognised the man from the resort and it was clear that he had brought his family to see where he worked. The children were dressed up and the wife wore a necklace that twinkled against her black skin. It was clear the way that they sat stiffly and looked up at the lights and the rest of us lounging around and talking loudly, that they were not used to outings like this. I had not been here long but I also realised that there was a strangeness to it: these places were serviced and stocked and watered by the locals but it was rare to see a black family sitting at a table and enjoying the evening like the rest of us. They sat in the seats that the French had vacated and I chatted to the children and told them how beautiful their country was; how lucky they were to see this every day and what it was like in England in the winter. I showed them pictures of my girls in the snow and in front of the gates at Buckingham Palace and they told me about their school day and the things that they were learning.
And then the French returned. At first I thought that they had simply come back to collect the cigarettes that they had left on the table until they remained looming over the family and demanding, without words, the table back. It was the worst incident of white arrogant racism that I had seen and I was furious. The father began to apologise and beckon his family to another table but I would not let it happen. It was absurd that these petulant and childish fools would destroy the evening of this beautiful little family.
“Que faites-vous?” I said. The men both whirled round, as shocked at the challenge in their own language as they were in the challenge itself. “Ils ne vont pas bouger. Ils sont avec moi.” It was like that moment when the monitor lizard came through the camp. The chatter had stopped and once again, all eyes were on what I would next. “Il y a une autre table la-bas” I said, pointing. Staring. Not flinching, but at the same time, not wanting to get into a scuffle with the kids looking over my shoulder. The brothers huffed a little and puffed then grabbed their cigarettes and stormed back to their tent.
It is a disgusting thing, to see this sort of treatment of people and I did not want to become hardened to it. I did not want to see it as ‘just the way it is here’. This was a beautiful family and the father was proud to be here with his wife and children and had they as much right as anyone to. Their smiles at a trip down the road from their own village showed an appreciation of life and each other so much more than the two privileged young men who had the means to travel half-way across the world to see this culture but could not muster the humility to shrug off the old diseases and prejudices of back home.