Extract from Taken on Trust by Terry Waite (Paperback, 2010, 496 pages, Hodder & Stoughton):
‘Why?’ someone once said to me. ‘Why do you think Europeans are so distant from Africans?’
‘Fear. They are afraid of Africa, afraid it will swallow them. It’s too vast, too mysterious, too earthy. Many Africans prefer to walk barefooted – to be in direct touch with the earth. Europeans wear shoes and cover the ground with concrete. One day Africa will be covered with concrete, and the spirits which fail to escape will be entombed forever.’
I remember standing on the bank of a lake in Buganda feeling vulnerable, frightened, alone. There is a great silence – a huge silence. The lake stretches out as far as my eyes can see. Why do I feel so vulnerable, so threatened by the magnificence of my surroundings? I sense the spirit of this place, a restless consuming spirit seeking to draw the unwary back to the earth from which they came. A small breath of wind stirs the gnarled branches of a dying tree. A wisp of woodsmoke spirals high into the sky. I smell the damp, dark atmosphere of this place, and it disturbs me.
Conceived and born in metropolitan London but raised in Africa from the tender age of several months is it any wonder that I grew up with a conflicted sense of who I was and where I belonged? It is my most sincere hope in the whole damn world – yes, MOST – that a satisfactory answer to this question will be found one day. By me? Of course that would be ideal, but not likely.
No, when I say ‘answer’ I refer to the fruits of scientific rigor married with real psychological insight: in pursuit of the ‘generic’ Leo A Passaportis. I do exist to myself and to others, perhaps quite insignificantly in the vast scheme of our universe, but significantly enough (or so I believe) to be able to conform to one generic model or another.
From what I have just written you could immediately lump me in the following category, for instance: white, British, male. To my mind that is an inadequate level of categorisation. I feel as though a lot more could be said of me.
Returning to my initial query, I believe this is in large part due to an anomaly involving place of gestation/birth and place of upbringing. (How comforting it would be to feel sufficiently defined in being called a white, British male.)
I became quite excited when I first read about the field of epigenetics. I have a feeling this emerging area of research will give us some of the answers I have long sought: Early childhood experiences can influence the brain for a lifetime [extract from Cerebrum online article, The Dana Foundation, 2011].
What I imagine would cloud the view of any would-be-researcher, were there one looking into the generic me, would be the overprint of a complex societal and familial influence. In fact just thinking about all those so-called influences makes me woozy! Yet there were some ‘symptoms’ exhibited by the younger me (<15) that might be of interest to this hypothetical researcher:
an unusual affinity for old, European architecture exhibited in buildings like the main school building at my high school, St Georges College (SGC), which gave me a very powerful sense of deja vu; a sense of clarity and unambiguity in matters of a moral sense which often left me feeling strongly at odds with sentiments of others: church, politics, racial discourse etc; and a general, difficult-to-clarify sense of just being different and, though I despised the implications, more sensitive than my peers.
I know that I wasn’t completely alone but I had so few encounters with other children who may have had similar thoughts and feelings that I can’t be sure. When I was a senior at SGC I recall a far younger boy, James Jackson, an English-raised lad who had evidently been in the country from a later age, identifying with me. I was his class prefect. I don’t know what prompted it but he confided in me that it was the worst school he had ever been to, that he felt like an outsider, alienated. It struck a chord with me.
Actually my strongest conviction from when I was still a young chap concerned environmentalism. I was a very vociferous advocate of protectionist-type conservation as was practised and advocated in Zimbabwe at that time. One of the biggest perceived threats came through the poaching of our native rhinoceros of which the country has two species, the black and the white (misnomers actually because they do not conform to a simple colour-coded distinction).
I campaigned to raise money, as many of us kids did at the time, for anti-poaching initiatives in national parks which held the majority of the animals. There was also much awareness being generated around the conservation of African elephants, under pressure from ivory-poaching regionally. But because of the geographical and practical limitations of my situation – living in the capital city, a relatively young scholar, parents who worked) – I only got out into the surrounds, the ‘bush’ as we called it, episodically.
I loved the bush and the farms that surrounded Harare, where we lived. After graduating from junior school to senior school (SGC) I decided to channel my energy as regards conservation (and nature-loving in general) towards a local initiative, the Greystone Nature Preserve. At the time we lived in Greystone Park, a doleritic suburb of Harare, and the nature preserve was actually a greenbelt and former bridal route through that part of suburbia.
Some years later I wrote an overview of my activities in the GNP in tandem with a teacher of mine, Rob Burrett, as part of a broader recollection. But that belongs in another post on my sister blog, These Archived Memories.
Returning to Mr Terry Waite and his rather prescient observation on being a European in Africa, the fact is that Africa is a land of vast spaces long removed from written history and thus undefined in the sense that much of Europe is by what happened when and where, and to whom. The African people have their oral traditions and there is the archaeological heritage as well, but it is a continent of wild places and, I would venture to say, many lonely spaces.
I found my ‘lonely space’ there in the GNP – a place I could escape to from the various strictures of my other-worldly existence. I was happy there for a while and I still ardently believe that, had I been allowed, I could have made my transition to some other lonely corner of Africa, sub-Saharan of course, perhaps a bit of farmland to call my own.
I certainly fantasised about it and the woman I would take as my wife: a complex hybrid of Catholic attributes, fortitude and beauty. There was no real-world equivalent. In retrospect it was a crazy, mad place to find myself in, in all possible ways. I’ve kept going back, again and again, looking for an answer that’s as elusive as the wind itself….