When we began planning our safari, we gathered a variety of travel, history, and literary books from various sections of the bookstore and internet searches. Eastern and southern Africa are the locations for a safari: Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa. However, these nations cover a vast area, possibly equivalent to standing our own USA on end twice. Unless we had months for travel, we would have to limit our scope, as we have to South Africa, for this upcoming trip. Meanwhile, we had picked up a few travel literature books covering other parts of East Africa. These have been good reads, and informative of the general experience of living in Africa, even though we shall have to leave visiting there to another time.
Kuki Gallmann’s book African Nights came from the travel literature section of our local bookstore. Alexandra Fuller’s book Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulnes awaited me on Mama Suzanne’s coffee table when I recently visited… I must remember to tell her that I took it to read on the airplane home… I would not have noticed it, except that a couple of weeks earlier, the Vicar had recommended Ms. Fuller as an author, whom he had come across during his travels to Zimbabwe some years ago. Such coincidences require reading.
Both books are family biographies to some degree, though each approaches the topic differently. Ms. Gallmann wrote a series of short stories, addressing the decade after her husband’s death from an automobile accident on a rural road in Kenya. Mr. Fuller writes about three generations of her family history (grandparents to her own generation) in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.
Both, women write from the experience of being European emigrants, who recognize their roots in Italy and Scotland, respectively, but who have elected to take Africa as their home (Mr. Fuller mostly strongly attaches this identity for her mother, as she later moved to Wyoming). Their observations are both with feet on the ground of Africa, and filtered through their European heritages. The landscapes, wild animals, indigenous cultures, and political changes during their time in Africa are foreign to them, though they recognize that they are the foreign element.
Ms. Gallmann’s stories occur mostly during the 1970’s and 1980’s when Kenya’s independence from colonial rule was settled, but traveling with weapons for protection from lions as well as remnants of militias and bandits was prudent. Ms. Fuller’s narrative covers the years of rebellion Kenya, when wounded militia members might step out of the forests seeking first aid and food before disappearing again, to the overthrow of Ina Smith’s Rhodesian government, when land mines routinely exploded on the edge of their farm on the boarder between Rhodesia and Mozambique. Ms. Fuller grew up with her mother carrying an AK-47 for routine gardening tasks.
Ms. Gallmann’s stories could stand alone, approaching her history without concern for the sequence of events. Each story introduces some place, person, or animal that bring us a closer understanding of what it is to be African, as well as human. Her descriptions are rich, as the example below, only on the second page of her introduction, demonstrates. I found that I could read only a few stories at one time, as I wanted to savor her accounts, as if I were in her native Italy, enjoying one delicious anti-pasta at a time with the need to socialize and digest before the next.
Africa is a continent of extremes
There are droughts and there are floods. There is an Africa of tradegy and famine, of curruption and war, of blood and hunger and tears, of incurable disease and tribal clashes and misery and violence and political unrest…
I do not sing of that Africa. There is no need for another negative reportage, which will leave a bitter taste and serve no purpose.
There is a different side to this ancient land. It is the Africa that, since the beginning of time, has evoked in travelers a deep recognition, an inexplicable yearning to return. The place that still has what most of the world has lost. Space. Roots. Traditions. Stunning beauty. True wilderness. Rare animals. Extraordinary people. The land that will always attract those who can still dream.
Ms. Fuller’s account of her mother’s life in Africa follows a carefully drafted series of dates and events. Each layer of the story builds upon the prior experiences. At the conclusion of some series of events that shaped her family’s life, Ms. Fuller summarize some key element that put the events into the larger context of human history and condition, as demonstrated by the following quote. To apply the meal imagery, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is really a multi-course dinner best consumed fully, one course at a time with rest between courses.
I has just turned fourteen during the Easter holidays of 1983 when Mum broke the news of me that John Parodi had been shot to death on his own veranda by an assassin or assassins unknown, the war bleeding retribution and carnage long after its official end. The people who found his body said that John’s staining handprint ran the length of the veranda as he tried to reach his son, Giovanni. And Giovanni himself — only fourteen but already handsome in that eyebrow-winged way of his thick-shouldered father and with his mother’s irreverently laughing mouth — had been abducted from the farm by his father’s killers. Madeline, John’s eighteen-year-old daughter was not at home on the day of the attack but for months and years after her father’s funeral, she road a motorbike through the Himalayas, searching for signs of her brother, calling his name profitlessly into the hot, purple hills, “Giovanni! Giovanni!”
No man starts a war warning that those involved will lose their innocence — that children will definitely die and be forever lost as a result of the conflict; that the war will not end for generations and generations, even after the cease-fires have been declared and peace treaties have been signed. No one starts a war that way, but they should. It would at least be fair warning and an honest admission: even a good war — if there is such a thing — will kill anyone old enough to die.
As I am inclined to do, I pondered what caught my attention so acutely in reading these two books. In each, I could see parallels in my own experiences, just without the exotic connotations of an Africa safari setting. I too have left the traditions and comforts of my suburban upbringing and life in what would become Silicone Valley, NYC, and Washington, D.C. to live in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains. Yet, I recognize that I will ever be a “Come Here” outsider, enjoying my adopted region. I can substitute the tracks of lions, hyenas, water buffalo, cobras, and bushbabies, for rumors of cougars, coyotes, cattle, timber rattle snakes, and opposims. I can substitute the zany stories of wild and domesticated farm animals for kidding and milking goats, rounding up feral cats for neutering, and scratching Daisy the Pig’s jowls (raised from the runt of the litter in a cat carrier to a 600 lbs hog) until she would let me sit on her back and ride her around the field. I can identify with the lives of both authors, who came from common families who just happen to live in extraordinary times and places. We are not history makers, but live in historical times, always. Books can bring the exotic to us, or make us realize the exotic in our everyday lives.