Guide books do little to quench my thirst to understand the people of Bududa and the vast mystery that is Africa.
Fortunately, there is a treasure trove literature as broad and deep as the continent itself. While waiting impatiently to leave for Uganda, I have been immersed in books about people and animals living in Africa. From the Elephant Whisperer to Isak Dinesen, the authors express their personal, subjective experiences that resonate with my reasons to travel and to engage with people and animals on their turf on their own terms.
A great example of passionate storytelling is Out of Africa. Originally published under the pseudonym, Isak Dinesen, it is actually the autobiography of Karen Blixen. She thought it would sell better if it was written by a man. Blixen was an early, white settler who fell in love with the people and the land. Although her privileged condescension is sometimes in conflict with her personal feelings about the natives, she clearly loves everything about Africa.
Her writing paints a magical picture of the wilderness and the wildlife. “Out on safari, I had seen a herd of Buffalo. One hundred and twenty-nine of them, come out of the morning mist under copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive iron-like animals with the mighty horizontally swung horns were not approaching, but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished.”
Blixen struggled unsuccessfully to maintain a huge farm that included six hundred acres of coffee plants. She also had an extended, on-again off-again love affair with the aristocratic Denys Finch-Hatton. The fluid relationships that were common within the ex-pat society of colonial Kenya is often the focus of a period novel, Circling the Sun by Paula McLain.
She describes Finch-Hatton was a handsome adventurer who attracted women like bees to honey including Blixen’s close friend, Beryl Markham. A professional big game hunter, he often led safaris to the wildest parts of the continent and only tolerated his clients (including the Prince of Wales) because they let him lead the way. He died at 44 when he crashed his small plane flying to Nairobi.
Markham had planned to accompany him on this flight, but canceled at the last minute because a friend had “a mysterious feeling”. An ending worthy of a Hollywood script.
McLain’s novel correctly portrays Beryl Markham as an amazingly capable, independent thinking and adventurous woman. She was brought to Kenya by her father when she was four. A quick study, she was only 18 when she became the first woman in Africa to receive a license to train race horses and at 34 became the first person, man or woman, to fly solo, non-stop, east to west across the Atlantic.
Married three times, Beryl Markham found time for numerous affairs including Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, the son of King George V.
The polar opposite of the colonialism described in Circling the Sun is The Africa Diaries of Dereck and Beverly Joubert. They chose 30 years of isolated life in the African bush so they could observe and record wildlife without the intrusion of any other people.
The Diaries combine Beverly’s exquisite photographs with Dereck’s fervent writing to make perfectly clear their love of the wilderness and their respect for the unique personality of every animal.
“Taming wild animals never really works out…Every time I am possessive about “our” animals, I remind myself, often aloud, that “these are South Africa’s warthogs, Botswana’s lions, Botswana’s elephants…” But in truth I know that they aren’t that either. The place does not possess the animals. Botswana and the lions, Botswana and the elephants are one in the same.”
The Jouberts understood that while they are learning about the animals, they are learning about themselves. “Beverly and I have in fact discovered many things about ourselves over all of the years together. We have learned where our spiritual homeland is and that we desire the wild, untamed world of the bush over the systems of cities and organized societies.” For those of us who find cities and organized society less and less comfortable, satisfying and healthy, the writing and the lifestyle of the Jouberts seems a confirmation that there is a better way to live.
Their lives almost ended abruptly when they were attacked by a Cape Buffalo. Undaunted by dozens broken bones, a punctured lung, months of hospitalization and lengthy rehab, the Jouberts continue to advocate for wild animals and conservation. A national magazine had this to say about their commitment and their accomplishments –
“No one could ever accuse the Jouberts of being unclear in their convictions. Since their earliest days as filmmakers in the 1980s, the South African pair has put wildlife conservation at the forefront of everything they do. Their more than 25 films—works that include Eye of the Leopard and Eternal Enemies—have helped call attention to the survival struggles of Africa’s most iconic species. The Jouberts have also launched and championed a number of wildlife-protection programs, from Rhinos Without Borders in Botswana to the Big Cats Initiative, which they formed in 2009 in partnership with National Geographic.”
A journalist who apparently didn’t know much about the Jouberts once asked Dereck if “waving a camera in front of Africa’s wild things” hadn’t lead to a few close calls.
Dereck replied, “We generally don’t wave cameras in front of animals. That is for TV personalities who want fame and reaction and usually get scratched as a result. We believe that when an animal sees and reacts to us, we have failed. Our ambition is to be invisible, wallpaper; to see, document, and be led into a magical world of acceptance. You only get this with respect and trust.”
If you are only able to read one book The Africa Diaries is the one you should not miss
The list of wonderful stories from Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is too long to present in one blog post. I am still reading and I will write more in another post.
But one idea has already become obvious – a month in Uganda is not nearly enough time to understand and savor my connection to the natural world. That relationship is abundantly clear but takes a lifetime to put into practice.
I haven’t gotten to Africa for the first time and I am already thinking about my return trip.
Please support my volunteer work at the Bududa Learning Center, by visiting my GoFundMe page at tinyurl.com/ron-uganda-GoFundMe
Every little bit help. Thank you