(This blog post originally appeared on www.africa.com, a website that features arts, culture, news, travel and commentary about Africa.)
Africa for me began in imagination. I was writing a novel The Dark Path to the River, which had an unnamed African country as the back story for a drama at the United Nations. The African characters started talking in my head, telling me their stories.
I had read widely about Africa, but at the time I had only been to Kenya on a traditional safari. I continued reading African literature, audited courses on African folklore and politics. While writing the book, I returned to Africa, to Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, where I visited schools and children I’d been engaged with through a nonprofit organization. I listened to the rhythms of the languages, to the songs, observed the colors of the green hills, the red dirt, the fuchsia, orange, yellow and blue flowers, the clothing of the same astonishing colors and patterns. I met with fellow writers and artists.
I have since returned to Africa dozens of times. I’ve visited schools in east, west, central, and southern Africa. In Uganda, I’ve plowed through the bush in a jeep to arrive at classrooms in a clearing whose materials hung from the roofs of huts with no doors so the cows of the pastoralist herders wouldn’t trample them. I’ve visited brick schools built by villagers in Malawi where the children sat on the extra bricks for stools: I’ve sat in classes in bullet-scarred schools that have been rebuilt after the civil war in Sierra Leone. In Ethiopia I’ve participated in a village bridal ceremony, have sat around smoking fires in villages in Mali eating goat and rice, have walked through the modern capitol buildings of Abuja, Nigeria, watched the sun rise over the Indian Ocean in Tanzania and set on the Atlantic in Sierra Leone.
I’ve listened to literature as I traveled in Ghana and Senegal, where writers are revered since the first President of Senegal, Leopold Senghor, was a world renowned poet. I’ve ridden a camel through the desert in Morocco and galloped on a white stallion at sunset in the Sahara in Egypt, stood awestruck at Victoria Falls, watched a bird tiptoe over lily pads on top of the water in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and witnessed the charging, turbaned horsemen in the Durbar in northern Nigeria. I’ve stood silenced in the slave holding areas peering through the portals where human beings were shipped to market from Gorée Island in Senegal and Elmina Castle on the Gold Coast of Ghana.
From modern capitols to the remotest villages without electricity, where villagers share the river with the baboons, lions and crocodiles, Africa encompasses centuries in one continent, often in one country. Through my work as a writer and with organizations in education, I’ve had the opportunity to visit and work in at least 15 countries over the past decades.
Africa for me began in imagination with people and has expanded with people– with the illiterate father in Mali who advocated for his daughter to go to school so she could help him when he went to market and assure he wasn’t cheated, to the witty Nigerian poet who asked in his poem, “Who Killed Macbeth?”and had a host of citizens blaming each other, to the courageous newspaper editor who gave his life in fighting corruption in the Gambia, to the woman organizer who organized women all over Sierra Leone for good government and then had the audacity to run for President herself and later to cheer when her good friend in neighboring Liberia actually won.
Many journeys to Africa are still ahead, I hope. Now I visit real friends as well as imaginary ones.