Monday, July 11, 2011

My Africa

This was supposed to be a review of Paula Leyden’s book, The Butterfly Heart, but in doing the research for it, I realized I needed to write about my own tentative connection to Africa first.
I read a ton of books as a kid, but I could not tell you a single title of an African-set story now, other than the Tarzan of the Apes adventures. I was rather fond of Cheetah, but I don’t think I fell in love with the idea of Africa until later.
When I was a bit older, I read The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood by Elspeth Huxley. My brother would argue that my “obsession with Hayley Mills”, as he calls it, is what got me interested in the TV series, which led me to the book.
By the time I was a teen and then a young adult, I loved the romance of colonial Europeans living in mysterious, wild Africa – young Elspeth made friends with local Kikuyus, Karen Blixen ran a farm, Beryl Markham flew her bi-plane into the bush to rescue stranded men, and life seemed one great adventure.
My impression of Africa was woefully out of date and unrealistic, to say the least.
So then I listened to the radio, read the news online, and had discussions with people about all the bad stuff going on. I read The Constant Gardener and watched the film. I read countless other books and watched movies and TV shows set in various contemporary African countries, some dark and doomed, some lighter.
To tell you the truth, I’m a bit scared of the “real” Africa, the one with poisonous snakes, dangerous men, genital mutilation of women, warlords and despots, pirates, drought, starvation, and HIV/AIDS. There is no adventure to be found here, no romance, no joy.
You’ll probably kill me for admitting that I like Alexander McCall Smith’s series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I was at a writing event a number of years ago, which featured African authors writing about life in each of their countries, and the very serious author of something very heavy and depressing BUT LITERARY (apparently) sneered at my chirpy admission.
I am well aware that McCall Smith’s books are not a realistic portrayal of Botswana, and they are being written by a white guy from Scotland. But, while they are lightweight and ultimately upbeat mysteries, they  also feature African women with heart, character, and humour.
McCall Smith on his website says: “I thought…that it was a great pity that there are so many negative books and articles about Africa. I wanted to show readers in the rest of the world that there are many great and remarkable people living in southern Africa – people who lead good lives, with honour and integrity…This is not to say that there are not many problems in that part of the world – there are. But the problems are only one side of the story – there is another, more positive side.”
I think that’s what I’m looking for, that other positive Africa, that shows real people living real lives and dealing with real issues, but written as a celebration, that embraces the joy of life. That’s why I read Paula Leyden’s book, The Butterfly Heart, which is set in Zambia. I’ll review it in a follow-up blog.
Eventually, I will travel to Africa and experience it for myself. For now, I rely on the authors of good books to gently enlighten me.


Madison said...

I get all the "reality" I need watching the news and reading magazines. I read fiction books for fun. It doesn't bother me that what I read might not be very realistic - if I have no experience of the subject myself. If I know EXACTLY what is unrealistic THEN it might bug me but I'll still keep reading.

The "bad" Africa came to my attention in the 80s. I'm sad the problems haven't been fixed. If I had a magic wand....

I dated a man from Nigeria. I learned a lot of things about that country I had no idea about. Of course, he came from a moderately well off family so his experience is different from that of someone living in a shanty town.

Then again my experience of Canada is fairly different from that of a WASP living his whole life in the British Properties.

Who's view is more valuable? Who's to say?

I started reading Ladies Detective but never finished it for some reason. I may have to take a look at it again.

Anonymous said...

Yet again Colleen you inspire me to pick up some good books to read and indulge my mind with some glorious words to inspire and delight my soul.
Sonya K

Marcella said...

The review is interesting and you give me the hint to read the last book you mentioned because, I have to admit, I did not like the Lady Detective series. In fact, I wouldn't even call it a detective series. Too simplistic.
Maybe in the review you could have mentioned a bit more the plot of the books you present. You kind of give for granted that everybody knows them. Just a suggestion.

Paula said...

No shame at all in liking The Ladies Detective Agency, he is a gentle writer who has a deep love for Botswana and its people.Also, we all come to understand 'other' parts of the world in different ways - what I know e.g. about life in Canada or Cambodia is woefully little. Interesting post Colleen.

A. Colleen Jones said...

I agree with you Madison, every perspective is valid. It's good to expand our horizons in whatever way we find works for each of us. :)

A. Colleen Jones said...

Sonya, I'm glad you're liking the posts. I really didn't know I was going to write this one when I started it! :)

A. Colleen Jones said...

Marcella, I'm not doing a review of those books, I just happened to mention them because they were books that had an impact on me, one way or another. The only one I'm planning to review is Paula's book, The Butterfly Heart, but I'll try to include links to descriptions of any books I mention in future, so you can find out more. :)

HappyFeet01 said...

I agree with you. I don't think we should consider the image of Africa just taken from news on TV, movies and books made by non-African people or from international cooperation organizations. I've never been there, but since I am going out with a man from Cameroon, I am discovering not just his own country, but also a bit of Africa as a whole continent. And it's incredibly diverse, even in just 40km away you can be speaking another language!So, guys if you like to write, imagine the amount of tales, legends and folklore that you can find!
Another source of knowledge about Africa that I use is its literature from native writers. So my first book, was "Vida de perro" by Patrice Nganang. I guess it might be also published in English as "Dog's life" or in French. I found that it was interesting the way that story is told: through a dog's eyes. After, that I read "Okupes a l'Àfrica" (Squatters in Africa) by Lluis Mallart, a Catalan missionary who lived in Cameroon in the sixties for 8 years and tell us about his last trip in the 90's (if I remember well). He is interested to read as he explains his experience living with the evozuk in a respectful and entertaining way. After his stay there he quit his missionary life and became an anthropologist as he realized that it was just another way of colonialism and we shouldn't try to impose our way of seeing the world. So that was a good teaching.
If you want to read some other African writers, you can check out this website from an Spanish association. It's very handy and also in English:

John Heraghty said...

Like the post Colleen, it's always interesting the misgivings and wrong perceptions people have on other countries/cultures, often based on idle chat and hearsay.
Keep up the good work!
John H

A. Colleen Jones said...

HappyFeet01, thanks very much for those recommendations for the books and the website. I will look those up!

A. Colleen Jones said...

Thanks for your comment, John. It's great to have a discussion about something so interesting! Makes a nice change from what happened on Britain's Got Talent or whatever. ;)

Sheila said...

Very well written and I think it is time you paid a visit there because you will be amazed. Its a huge and beautiful continent with such diversity in each country. It is sad that it is a continent with so many problems because it is such an amazing place worthy of many, many visits! Keep up the good work Colleen! x

Unknown said...

Of course Africa has a lot of sad stories to tell, but so does Ireland, right?
You should go there: Whether it's South Africa, Namibia, Egypt or Marocco, there are quite a few countries you can easily visit. It's not more dangerous than going to NYC in the 80's or so ;-)
And at least I can tell you that South Africa is beautiful.

A. Colleen Jones said...

Thanks Sheila and Christian! I have always wanted to go to Kenya to stay in the tree hotel I read about years ago, but a co-worker went to Namibia last year and loved it. I think I'd like Morocco as well, but maybe I'd go on a women's group trip. Things to dream about while I save up the money for travel. Sigh. Colleen :)

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