African city links

May 19, 2018

What religiaus are you?’ It took moments to understand the question asked by the escort assigned by the Malawian judiciary to me during my short stay with them. ‘I’m Christian’ was my cheerful reply. I had to wipe off the smirk at the memory of the grammar and intonation as I climbed up.

The lilting accents of Malawi seemed so in sync with the gentle flow of this peaceful smiling land. The driver would come out of the car the moment I started to enter it. I guess it was traditionally ‘wrong’ for him to be sitting in the car when whatever I represented was trying to enter. I couldn’t gather the courage to ask the reason for this protocol.

But oh…so many acts of respect, kindness and obsequiousness. People would retreat down the steps they had started to climb just because a more senior person happened to be travelling down the same steps from the next floor. It went beyond anything I’d observed in Ghana where the constant flattening against a wall in deference of a passing ‘dignitary’ still made me uneasy.

Warm heart of Africa. Who can understand the depths of generosity expressed in the traditions of hospitality? They are often taken for oppression, though no one questions the Asian bows as beautiful expressions of human communication.

My thoughts went to the border of one of Ghana’s next door neighbors and the hardness that stung with fear as one arrived in that country on a day’s trip meant to be fun. Squinting men scowling at your passport and flatly declaring you couldn’t pass through without paying money even if you had legitimate business to do in their country and you were from Ghana – where families lived and worked seamlessly in the two countries. Young men startled you with a deliberate look at your bag if you wondered too far away from the comfort of hosts. And this was just next door to home.

More than thirty six years ago, my inexperienced, untraveled eyes had first encountered sliced bread and beautiful jewelry displayed in that country’s shops. But the decades had only brought listlessness to this jewel that now searched for its glory in the distraught looks of men who tried to remember what manhood meant in their aggressive looks.

I confess I’d felt a pang of anxiety as I walked into the arrival hall in Lilongwe. The crowded carousel with sweating travelers reeled my senses, compelling me to examine the reason for the feeling of uncertainty when I was in a place more reminiscent of Ghana than most places I’d travelled to. What sent threats in the welcome air? The memory of arriving in distant lands where the people were not my color, but breathing was effortless because space was made for movement, answered my query. The pangs came from confusion about personal safety. Or maybe, simple claustrophobia. Definitely, giving human activity space has its value

Gambia’s Banjul had baffled me. The unlikely romance of dark young men hanging on the arms of white old ladies at pool sides were the visions I took away. And the information that the entire nation had fewer than 50 lawyers dredged ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ from a distant reading spell. Banjul should not have been crowded. But I believe I saw more rubbish there than Blantyre. Well, that was in 2005. I hope the situation is better now.

As I compared travel through Africa, I remembered the brief seasons I spent in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. That trip confirmed my hypothesis that beauty was not commensurate with warmth. Kenya’s Nairobi skyline compared favorably with many cities but I didn’t see the deep smiles available elsewhere. Yet Dar-A-Salaam’s threadbare strain beamed with serenity. My soul recognized welcome. Arusha had endeared itself to me with no doubt. Going on a safari in Ndurgoto and encountering giraffes and rhinos with mounts Kilimanjaro and Neru overseeing the journey could only have been evidence of Eden. I felt strung on air from the moment the Ehiopianair touched down and faced Kili and Neru’s twin peaks.

Trying to relate to Kampala had drawn strange strains in my heart. The city seemed unsure of itself. Confident and yet anxious. Angst at the very best (or worst).  This is where I encountered the biggest crab I’d seen prepared for eating. It took over the huge serving plate and required all dinner to conquer. I could understand that the Nile began its mysterious journey somewhere in this earthy place that proudly held its own notwithstanding batterings from the potent mixtures of strong rule, rebels and the strange killer that held sway from loving without cover. HIV, Africa’s nemesis that knew not dignified or common. It lurked with every act of intimacy.

But Dakar is in a class of it’s own. Art spoke. From finely cut clothes that revealed the African packed back side, appropriate for staring. Fabrics with people leaping in dance. Beads. Crafts. Even the trip to the slave island of Goree couldn’t still the sweet beauty of the city. A friend declared he’d come back and buy property there. I didn’t know what to make of that but the blueness of the sea certainly merited investment.

I remembered with tears my first trip to Abidjan when I was enthralled by the siesta and elegant gait of the city. By the time I went back there, the war had dropped the skirts of this lady of a city. Men with guns looked ready to rape. Prayer welled as I passed through it to Dakar. May you be truly restored, beautiful one.

Before I could reflect on Lagos and Abuja, my musings were arrested by the strangest call. A family of beggars sat outside a fast food joint called Kips near the Blantyre hotel. As I passed to buy airtime for my phone, the little girl looked up from their meal of potato chips – obviously begged off some patron. She scooped up a number and offered them with outstretched hand. The invitation was confirmed by her mother’s sweet smile. From Blantyre to Mzuzu, these people offered love out of whatever they had. Who called Malawi a poor nation? I could identify better with their own review of their soul. The warm heart of Africa.

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