From the age of five years old, I always wanted to go to Africa; in fact, any time the continent was mentioned in my presence, I would eagerly announce: “I’m going there!” As a child, I was surrounded by talk of the Mother Land: the wonders that had been discovered and stolen, the different peoples, the riches, and the poverty. As a child, I was more intrigued by tales of Africa than by pictures of Disney Land! I had visions of tall grass and thatched roof mud huts, of big skies and wild animals.
When the chance to volunteer in Botswana arose, it was like a dream come true for me. I remember the day the opportunity became possible. I had just finished taking the GCSE and wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I knew that I didn’t want to go on with school, and I knew more than anything that I couldn’t stay on in London, living the raver’s life. It was as if I could see the road that I was on clearly and that road wasn’t good for me. I was bored, and on this particular day, I was just fed up with it all.
My best friend, Gaea, was signed up with an organisation that was sending her off to Eritrea. I wanted to go, but feared that my academic scores might hold me back. Sitting in Gaea’s bedroom, I saw the leaflet that she had about her upcoming trip to Africa, and that was when I knew that I had to go. Seeing that leaflet was like seeing an open window in a burning house. Within minutes, I was on the phone with the man who was sending her there, and booked an appointment to meet him. The excitement that I felt as I walked through east London on my way to meet him was difficult to contain. I didn’t know what the outcome would be. I did know, however, that, no matter what, the clock was wound up and I would be going to Africa!
We decided that Botswana would be the place where I would work for six months. Gaea changed her plans so we could go together. We had always dreamt about travelling together, so, for me, it was like hitting two birds with one stone.
When I got home, I told my mother that I was going to Africa. Her excitement scared me! And then the ball just started to roll down that hill and I couldn’t have stopped it if I had wanted to.
Before I knew it, there I was, walking off the plane with my best friend. Botswana lay out before me. The first thing that I noticed was the space and the heat, and that everyone was black! I got an overwhelming feeling to bend down and kiss the ground. I was home. I had arrived. And I was only seventeen.
For Gaea, the experience was the complete opposite. As a white person, she had her first experience as a minority. When she got off the plane, the first thing that she noticed was that everyone was black.
The plan was to stay in Botswana for about six months, but I soon realised that would be impossible. There was just far too much for me to see. I wanted to lie on the ground; I wanted to scream from the highest mountain and let everyone know that I was here! It was the first time in my life that I ever felt the right to be somewhere.
The only time that I felt otherwise was when people would speak to me in Setswan, and I would have to explain that I could only speak English. I remember once when I was in a shop and a lady and her friend tried to strike up a conversation with me. When I told her that I was from England and that I didn’t understand her, the expression on her face was one of astonishment. If only I had taken a photograph! She looked at me long and hard and then said: “But you’re black.”
What could I say to that?
The first time that I ever felt a hint of racism towards me happened when my friend Gaea and I decided to take a three-week holiday to Zimbabwe. Our plan was to travel around by hitching lifts and that, under no means necessary would we pay. Since neither of us looked forward to sitting in the front seat making small talk with the drivers, we made a deal with each other: If the driver was black, I would sit in the front; if he was white, then Gaea would sit in the front.
During our travels, we encountered a white driver from the UK who agreed to give us a lift. He was originally from Manchester but had lived in Zimbabwe for sixteen years. The benefit of sitting in the back was that I could get on with reading my book and leave Gaea to do all the talking. But this guy was different; he kept turning around to talk to me, asking me questions about where my family was from and such. We started to talk and, at first, the conversation was quite interesting. I told him about life back home and he was told me about his life in Africa. But then the conversation took an unexpected turn. He started to talk about the African people: what Africans were like and how unorganised they were. He said that Africans were like dumb children. During his rant, we passed a car that had broken down, where three African men were working together, trying to fix it. He turned to me and scornfully said, “Just look at them.” His voice was full of hate. And he only made it worse when he tried to redeem himself by saying to me: “But you’re different, you grew up in Britain.”
How could he? How dare he? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wanted to slap him, to spit in his face, and get out of his car. But, instead, I sat there in silence as my anger slowly festered.
I can still see Gaea’s face, looking at me through the side mirror while I sat there in silence. Oh, and how I wanted to tell him what I was thinking, but I couldn’t; there we were, sitting in his air conditioned 4x4, driving through a truly amazing land. But one could only see the surrounding beauty by opening one’s eyes. If only this man could open his eyes, he would be able to see the beauty of the land reflected in the very people he dismissed as dumb. If only the beauty that I could see outside could have been captured at that moment and brought into the car!
I spent the rest of the drive in silent anger; I couldn’t even look at the back of his head. Who was this man to talk about people that looked just like me? If I were standing next to those people, how would he know that I was any different? Who was this man who had come over from England to reap the benefits of cheap labour and to outrageously degrade the native people of this land? But what angered me most was that he knew that I knew; and he was, in a round-about way, talking about me. He was putting me in my place.
And yet, despite the things that this man had said, the anger that had filled me didn’t last. Africa is far too beautiful to feel that way for long, and with time, I forgot about him.
Months later, I was travelling again, this time with my boyfriend. We had just spent a few weeks in Malawi and were working our way to the Zambian side of Victoria Falls, when he fell ill with malaria in Lusaka. Fortunately, he had some friends that we could stay with while he recovered. This was the first time since arriving in Africa that I had the opportunity to live with Africans. For the first time, I was not staying in a hotel or a guesthouse. I was finally getting a clear idea of what it was to be an African in Africa.
My boyfriend’s friends were the most hospitable people I have ever met. They were newly weds, and had just bought their house through a government scheme which had cost them 1,200 US dollars. For their money, they got two rooms: a bedroom and another room they used as a living room. Like all the other houses in that region of the world, there wasn’t a kitchen, and like all the other families, they cooked their food on the veranda. Three families shared the outhouse and bathroom that was at the end of the garden; I used to hate going there to wash or use the long drop (toilet). I would run in there and run out just as fast, and at night, it was worse; I would lie in bed trying to convince myself that there would not be any horrible monsters just waiting for me to lift up the sheet of metal that covered the hole.
My boyfriend was taking longer than most to recover and we were all beginning to worry about him, so his friend and I decided to go to the hospital to get some anti-malaria medicine. We went into town to get the medicine, and I was very happy to get away from the house and see some of the city. We decided to walk back through the market; I had never seen anything like it before or since. It was huge: bigger then any market I had seen back home! It was like a maze and I am sure that, had I been there alone, I would never have made it out of there.
As we were walking through, my guide and host told me about his life and what it is like to live in Zambia: how things have improved with the new government, and that it was through the government that they were able to buy their house. Up until that point, I had been so caught up in my own experience that I had never thought to ask what he and his wife did for a living. Ironically, he was a mechanic and recently, he and his partner were making a car: a Land Rover, to be precise.
Instantly I was brought back to my trip with Gaea so long ago. Here was one of the “dumb men” that our driver had spoken about, and yet he wasn’t dumb in the slightest, nor was he childish. Here was a man who rebuilt a car. Here was a man who used all of his resources, and he hadn’t even been trained. Here was a man who gave up his bed for strangers.
I felt honoured, and yet I must say that one of the things that I so loved about Africa was the people, their hospitality, and their innovation. It’s a shame that my driver couldn’t be here to hear what I was hearing and that he couldn’t see what I was seeing.
And it was at this point that we were just about to cross the road and, as if on cue, all the store holders shouted: JAH RASTERFARIE.
By Ekua McMorris
1st January 2005