BootsnAll Travel Network

Intelligence reports and a whiff of Africa.

Glorious weather in south Texas, and wonderful news abroad in the world. At last our sneering President’s own intelligence (I hesitate to use both words in the same sentence) agencies have reported what the Buddha said: VIOLENCE BEGETS VIOLENCE. Violencia faz violencia. It was never enough for our media-numbed populace that thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were dying bloody deaths from high-tech killing machinery; but at last we have word from a “conservative” source that the war has made life less safe for Americans. If that can just get people’s attention, maybe the movement for peace, or at least for a change in government, can take hold. So I hope. And as I was beaming in the gentler heat and grinning at the news, I stumbled over a book about southern Africa that is so achingly well-written it takes my breath away: Scribbling the Cat, by Alexandra Fuller.

Fuller writes with humor, passion, and tenderness of the valley in Zambia where her parents have a farm: “Sole Valley is a V-shaped slot of goat-dusted scrub between the Chabija and Pepani Rivers in eastern Zambia. The town of Sole has metastasized off the cluster of building that make up the border post between Zambia and Zimbabwe.” If we count her parents, she tells us, “there are maybe two dozen people–out of a total population of about sixty thousand–who have voluntarily moved to the Sole Valley from elsewhere. . . if you don’t count the Italian nuns at the mission hospital who are here as the result of a calling from God (more like an urgent shriek, I have no doubt).” She’s white, the main characters in her story are white, and the born-again Christian soldier she runs off with speaks and lives with the unabashed racism, courage, hard work, love for the land, and social complexity that left me writhing in frustration the whole six years I lived there. Her writing takes me back to Africa: “It was the time of day when the confusion of color, the churn of cooler air supplanting the heat of day, the miracle of the journeying river–everything about being alive–seemed more improbable and fleeting than usual.”

She also writes about the difficulty of returning to the USA (where she lived with her husband and children) after spending time in Africa. This is something so wrenching, I have never been able to explain it to myself or anyone else, but Fuller lays it out on the page: “I was dislocated and depressed. It should not be physically possible to get from the banks of the Pepani River to Wyoming in less than two days, because mentally and emotionally it is impossible. . . . America felt suddenly pointless and trivial and almost insultingly frivolous. . . there was nothing challenging about being here, at least not on the surface. . . . It wasn’t that I didn’t want to join in the innocent, deluded self-congratulation that goes with living in such a fat, sweet country. I did. But I couldn’t. . . . Now I felt like a trespasser in my own home with all its factory-load of gadgets and machines and the ease of the push-button life I was living. . . Then gradually I resumed the habits of entitlement that most of us don’t even know we have.” Yes. Yes. That difficulty.

Fuller reminds me that I am still fragmented by the confusion, the love, and the guilt of being as privileged as I am. And while in Africa it is palpably obvious that the well-to-do (both Black and white) depend on the labor of the less well-to-do for their daily comforts, in America the labor of the less well-to-do is hidden in small tags and stickers. The grapes in my nearby supermarket wear fingerprints of migrant Mexican workers in California vineyards; the polo shirts sold by L.L. Bean bear the fingerprints of Indonesian or Nicaraguan children; the microwave dishes at Target were packed by tiny, fragile Nepalese women in a Chinese-owned factory. Fuller’s book helps me to sort through some of the fragments of my psyche, pieces that have been scattered since I returned from Africa in 99, pieces that will never quite fit together again, because tiny shards of who I was remain in Africa. Fuller’s words do help, somehow. If Lisa weren’t about to give birth in Toronto, I would phone her up and talk about it now. Lisa goes back and forth often, doing what she can about AIDS, working fiercely and returning to write about her work. I think she burns off her dislocation by working till she drops. How will motherhood change that? I wonder.

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