While some volumes are especially instructive, sometimes in my early researches into African culture and ecology, I may have sampled a few too many books that would give you an altogether wrong picture of the ‘Dark Continent.’
Let’s just start with that descriptive right here. The very expression ‘Darkest Continent’, ‘Darkest Africa’, whatever conjures up fearsome images of cannibals, savages, wild lions and snakes ready to fall on every convenient [preferably] blonde nubile maid. Perhaps it would help to know that Africa is not one big jungle from one end to the other. A variety of habitats, from savannah to desert to river ecosystems to fertile deltas to, yessss, swamplands, exist across the breadth of the land. At least three ecosystems are to be found in the nation of The Sudan alone. So there.
The books I started with unfortunately, were the kind written in the 40’s and 50’s, featuring the brave explorer with the requisite pith helmet on his brave white head. Attilio Gatti’s South of the Sahara from 1945 for example, or Cherry Lander’s My Kenya Acres (1957). I wonder if I should include Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa on that list?
I found these in used books stores, and there’s a reason for that. They’re kind of like Jim Carrey’s 1995 comedy Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, which was funny as hell. Until you step back and realize its portrayal of Africa, the real Africa, is hopelessly, terribly, horrifically out of date by at least 30 years. Sorry, there were no British or any other colonial officers running any African nation by 1995.
One wonders whether Africans were testing the credulity of these so-called white explorers. Case in point; in his 1996 book No Mercy, intrepid explorer Redmond O’Hanlon travels to the Congo in search of the legendary lost dinosaur Mokele-Mbembe at Lake Tele. Over dinner by a campfire Redmond asks one of his guides, “So, Doubla…why did Marcellin swear he saw the dinosaur?” “Don’t you know?” Doubla smiles. “It’s to bring idiots like you here. And make a lot of money.” (That said, it’s a pretty funny book with ‘slapstick, existential dread and brilliant digressions on everything from the sex life of the pygmy chimpanzee to the best method for killing a sorcerer’.)
The tendency of such books is to be condescending towards Africans, an Outsiders view not so different from Victorian times where each tribe was charming in and of itself, and yet, due to their lack of the civilizing influence of Christian values, these people always inevitably must be savages. That’s the mindset we have to get away from, one our President unfortunately snuffles every night.
I have tried to shake these colonial misconceptions. It’s taken years and it has not been easy. That conditioning is burned into our thoughts and minds with every safari rerun on late night TV, every Tarzan movie ever made and remade. Word of advice? Don’t believe Edgar Rice Burroughs. The man knew nothing of Africa.
I spent endless hours watching Tarzan movies at my mother’s house as a kid. Today I look back and think of them the way Richard Pryor did. Here’s what he said in Live on the Sunset Strip (1981): “Tarzan wouldn’t last a week in Africa. Either that or they’d think he was a crazy white man. ‘Where’s Tarzan?’ ‘You mean the crazy white man? He’s up the trees with the baboons!’
I have developed through painful experience a simple rule when it comes to these books: if it was published before 1970 it’s probably not accurate. especially when it comes to Africa. The further back in time you go, the less accurate the information will be and the more biased it becomes. Think of all the advances we’ve made in the last 50 years. Can you imagine writing a term paper on Mars, based on the knowledge we had before 1964? You’d be crowing about canals and laughed out of university!
If you’re open there is a treasure trove of African literature waiting to be discovered, and its really not that hard to find. There are historical and cultural treatises such as Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya, memoirs both personal and historical. Novels galore from such talents as Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche await your attention, just as two examples. There are stories of hope and despair, war and renewal. All this is waiting for you, if you only reach out your hand and grasp it.