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  • Writer's pictureEllen Baragon


Poets have the discipline to throw light down into caves and pull up the right words and perfect timbre to impart what an extraordinary place this continent is. I cannot do that. I want to put it into words, but I am staggered to get to the finish line with my adjectives about it and am bored by the triteness of my attempts to get it right, as though it hasn’t already been accomplished by thousands before me.

There is a need to stitch together as many moments of sights, sound, smell, taste and feeling of my visit to Africa before losing those pieces of the story that are invisible and inaudible in the volume of my digital recordings. But like magic dust, some of it will drift away before I can capture it.

I had longed to visit Africa for as long as I can remember but I had some worries going there.

What if it didn’t live up to my lifelong dreams? What if once I had come home there was no longer that pull to keep me dreaming of another world that seemed in my imagination a kind of heavenly paradise that God had forgotten to safeguard against human sinfulness?

And on a banal level, what if long-legged showy spiders tiptoed into my bed covers at night? I imagined all kinds of glamourous insects pouncing on my ankles to nip me into a venomous death. I think I even read something about snakes in Africa that will hurl themselves from tree branches and use their spiral bodies to compress the victim’s air pipes into suffocation and death.

But the thing I feared most was seeing brazen poverty of life’s essentials, especially in children and the elderly. I feared seeing suffering animals and impalas being ripped alive by predators. I feared I would get sick from malaria and have to be carted through jungle and desert to a clinic where they would pronounce that my prognosis was, death.

But there were lighter moments of reverie.

For the first days of our visit to Cape Town, I was waiting to see if I could stop thinking and feeling like a Canadian tourist on a scenic journey. I wanted to cast aside any identity of the ‘white oppressor’ and all the ignorant assumptions and entitlements of my birthplace to feel something in my bones for a South Africa I have long understood to be a place of the most depraved injustices against people of colour.

Of course, it’s impossible to unfetter yourself, from yourself, and simply be a human being in a foreign land. But I tried. In any case, South Africa is too grand, too overwhelmingly rich in human spirit and its land too bountiful to be defined by outsiders. Africa is what she is and no attempt at last-minute enlightenment, judgements or comparisons changes anything.

The landscape alone is overwhelming in scale and splendour. Driving through endless skeins of forest and pasture, mountains and plains, it’s beauty was often pre-empted by human communities unadorned with adequate food, housing and other essential services, the contrast between glorious scenery and harsh human reality.

The creatures who live in the forests and jungles came to us out of the bush. They watched us cautiously but they mostly got on with life, allowing our intrusions without threat. How can creatures this exquisitely perfect exist outside of one’s imagination?

The first time I saw elephants I broke into tears. Fortunately, I was at the back of the jeep where only my roommate could see me. The first time I saw a lion I was so excited I wanted to badly to jump out of the jeep to get closer. That would have been frowned upon.

An unforgettable memory was when our jeep came upon a female elephant who had charged at a vehicle driving ahead of us. A small truck of researchers saw this and backed up a block away as our driver did. But every time we thought this magnificent matriarch was going to let us pass, she came further down the road toward us, daring us with her ears flapping as though to say, ‘Make my day, fools’. I was a bit frightened by her staunchness, but immensely impressed with the boldness she defended her territory, and rightly so.

Like a child, I reached out to touch souvenir after souvenir as though trying to quench a thirst. Around every corner and at every stop was an opportunity to lay eyes and hands on artwork and handmade crafts that spoke to me in a language I did not understand but was drawn to. It’s as if bringing the souvenirs home, the objects, and what they represent, might become part of me.

But while the apparent purpose of souvenirs is to re-remember, most of what we feel about a time and place cannot be carried away and set on a shelf in our living rooms.

The people who fed us or provided transport and lodging, whether born and bred in South Africa or coming from Zimbabwe and Botswana, were very courteous, kind and professional. The women and men who gave us insights into traditional customs of Zulu and Swahili people were powerfully impressive whether speaking of their culture or showing it in voice and movement.

And whether in a cosmopolitan city such as Cape Town or a rural village, one could always count on witty humour and ironic smiles.

I have visited beautiful countries in my travels. Yet I am likely not unique in feeling I had come upon a place that felt like a kind of Garden of Eden. A return to the purity of what was bestowed by God, Mother Nature or whatever Power one chooses to ascribe the brilliance of the place in every direction.

It’s as if you need a special pair of sunglasses to filter out the brightness of it. It’s like a kind of Disneyland, but not a fake reconstitution we have been exposed to in movies and books. It is vivid and real.

But it is not a garden untroubled by poverty and enduring discrimination driven by race and class. We hear that in many ways South Africa is cracking apart at the seams from a history of turmoil, corruption, neglect, injustice, greed and disparity of opportunity. We are human and the course to survival, is not always the path to righteousness.

Next up…walking with lions in Zimbabwe

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