Packing up after six glorious, joyful years in Africa
-It feels funny to write this, to spill all this cheesy love for Africa, but it deserves praise’
I woke up on Sunday before dawn with the sea lapping below me. I got up and sat on the veranda, and before long a woman appeared with tea. I watched the sun come up over the Indian Ocean while my son wandered barefoot in the grass, clasping his lamb teddy. I teared up at the thought of leaving this beautiful continent behind.
I had spent that time before dawn thinking about all the things that are great about this place where I have spent more than 18 years of my life, and thinking about taking my children away from the colour, warmth and experience of it all. Malawi, Ethiopia, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho, Egypt, Kenya, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Mauritius and Seychelles: these are the places I have been able to spend some time. And Africa is not a country, but for the sake of brevity just let me call it all Africa.
It feels funny to write this, to spill all this cheesy love for Africa, but it deserves praise. I can’t deny that moment of huge excitement when I step off a flight in Africa. Getting enveloped at the top of the steps by thick, hot air while the baking heat permeates through my shoes and I can walk across the runway with a freedom that I would never feel in a rule-bent Europe.
I have a few key memories from the past six years that highlight what is brilliant about Africa. As with everywhere, it is all down to the people. Lions, whatever. Waterfalls, yeah, they’re nice. But within an hour of arriving you will have met someone who will give you a laugh, even just by introducing themselves.
When we first arrived in Lilongwe, the Malawian capital, in 2008 the taxi driver who took us to the hotel was called Frighton. The papers have endless wanted ads for thieves called Innocent. Unplanned children could be called Curse or We Didn’t Want You in their mothers’ native language. Or the guy called Elastic, whose last name is Banda.
Or they will give you a laugh, because they are hilarious. In Kampala I paid a fiver to use an algae-filled pool at a local hotel. I noticed a big frog in the pool and told the receptionist, who looked extremely concerned. “This is terrible!” he said. I was surprised and delighted with his disgust. “This frog has not paid to swim!” He laughed loudly as he flicked it deftly out of the net across the lawn.
In the main, the men you meet will have smiles so big and white you’ll want to visit a dentist, and handshakes that require the full strength and flexibility of your body to participate in. Saying hello is ceremonial. In southern and eastern Africa, shaking hands is handshake, twist hand up, squeeze thumb, handshake again.
In Ethiopia, greetings are a fantastically complicated affair. You could say hello by touching opposing shoulders, by kneeling slightly, by shaking opposite hands but holding your own arm with the other hand.
In the main, women are fierce and sombre at first glance. “Why do women not smile very much here?” I asked in Zambia. “Because their lives are very hard.” That’s true. African women are astute, but once intentions have been established they are soft and funny and open.
I once approached the airline representative in Lusaka who had a face like a hippo with indigestion. She gave me my boarding card without a word, but when I turned to leave she called me back. She stood up behind her desk and leaned over, telling me to move back a few steps. “Ay! You have a beautiful body!” She called over a colleague, who chimed in, and they traced their hands in the shape of my big hips. They smiled and laughed, and it was the only time in my life someone has complimented me on my enormous ass.
Masai security guard
African women are flipping gorgeous. Beautiful skin, high chins and enviable posture that exudes strength and confidence. Being around a woman from Eritrea is a humbling experience, because it is incomprehensible that someone as beautiful could exist without make-up and lights.
The Diet Coke ad has nothing on the sight of an African labourer with natural, toned muscles, splashing water over his head and down the grooves in his back. The most handsome African man I have ever seen is the Masai security guard at the local cafe, his forehead adorned with white beads and his braids swishing behind him. I always give him a big tip for looking after my car, because I’m shallow like that.
People ask me why I don’t like to dance. And I think it’s because I have spent too much time watching people move like snakes, with quiet, natural rhythm. I’ve watched them howl and shake in an oddly graceful way, despite the primal nature of their dance, and anything less is pointless.
One of my favourite things is the approaching sound of a truck or bus full of singers. They could be going to a funeral, school, work or the end of the world. There could be five or 200, and all you can hear is perfect, pure, deep song.
The best thing about Africa is the children. They will remind you of the resilience of humankind. In Gulu, in northern Uganda, I met children one night at a mission hospital in the town. Every evening the children walked barefoot for up to three hours to sleep on the hospital floors, then walked back home every morning so they could escape being captured by the Lord’s Resistance Army to be used as child soldiers. And when we left in our big white Land Rover they ran alongside it, laughing and smiling and waving. Their ability to extract joy from this occasion made my chest feel hollow, because Africa doesn’t deserve those things, because it really is incredible.
After breakfast on Sunday we packed up the car and headed back to the city. We waited for three hours with growing crowds at the ferry port, wondering what could be taking so long. It turned out that approaching ferries had not turned around, so vehicles on board had to reverse off, one by one, up the steep ramp and long winding hill to the road. I was taking photographs on my phone when the car was surrounded by guards, who made us empty our wallets as a penalty for taking photos. They walked off, splitting the notes between them. And I thought, Screw this, I’m outta here.
This article appears in Weekend Review today.
Ceire Sadlier is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration, and has written about being tired of wanting to be in Ireland, Christmas in Lusaka, leaving good friends behind, being ignorant of the property tax as an emigrant, making a life in a place that isn’t ‘home‘, the very Irish way of being kind, flying home for her father-in-law’s funeral, and more. Her articles also appear on her own blog, theirishexzaminer.com.