Friday, March 14, 2008

The One Thing Africa Is Not

My parents left (perhaps inadvertently) a book behind called West With the Night by Beryl Markham and I have since picked it up and begun reading it. It’s a remarkable book, a memoir of a British woman’s life growing up in Kenya. She was a farmer’s daughter, raised thoroughbred horses, and she was a pilot. She writes with such confidence and grace. Here is a long excerpt from the book’s early pages.

“Competitors in conquest have overlooked the vital soul of Africa herself, from which emanates the true resistance to conquest. The soul is not dead, but silent, the wisdom not lacking but of such simplicity as to be counted non-existent in the tinker’s mind of modern civilization. Africa is of an ancient age and the blood of many of her peoples is as venerable and as chaste as truth. What upstart race, sprung from some recent, callow century to arm itself with steel and boastfulness, can match in purity the blood of a single Masai Murani whose heritage may have stemmed not far from Eden? It is not the weed that is coorupt; roots of the weed sucked first life from the genesis of earth and hold the essence of it still. Always the weed returns; the cultured plant retreats before it. Racial purity, true aristocracy, devolve not from edict, nor from rote, but from the preservation of kinship with the elemental forces and purposes of life whose understanding is not farther beyond the mind of a Native shepherd than beyond the cultural fumblings of a mortar-board intelligence.

“Whatever happens, armies will continue to rumble, colonies may change masters, and in the face of it all Africa lies, and will lie, like a great, wisely somnolent giant unmolested by the noisy drum-rolling of bickering empires. It is not only a land; it is an entity born of one man’s hope and another man’s fancy.

“So there are many Africas. There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa—and as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime…All of these books, or at least as many of them as I have read, are accurate in their various portrayals of Africa—not my Africa, perhaps, nor that of an early settler, nor of a veteran of the Boer War, nor of an American millionaire who went there and shot zebra and lion, but of an Africa true to each writer of each book. Being thus all things to all authors, it follows, I suppose, that Africa must be all things to all readers.

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.’ It is all these things but one thing—it is never dull.”


tumwijuke said...

How do you define something as big, as diverse, as complex as Africa?

This sounds like a really well written book. Perhaps you'd consider joining the Africa Reading Challenge and write a full review about it (and others) on your blog.

DeTamble said...

I'm with tumwi, sounds like a great book.

Anonymous said...

Hemingway described it as a "bloody wonderful book"--and he wasn't known for praising anyone's work other than his own. The book's authorship has been disputed, but no matter. Passages about Africa, about flying--even about maps--are stunning in their simplicity and beauty. The account of her first major horse race, at age 18, is breathtaking. A marvelous book. --Don Wright, San Jose, CA