Africa defines me. It is my foundation and my firmament. When I write, I recall the smell of sugar-cane being milled, of rain on hot tar, of the spices on East Street, of the cold morning veld just before the sun rises. I remember the sound of the hadeda raucous in her brown housewife’s coat, the incessant chanting of the Christmas beetles, the crashing of lorry gears on Town Hill, the mynah birds greeting dusk in the trees of the Old Supreme Court, Zulu hymns at night. I think of lucky beans, bright drops of blood in their pods, yellow winter grass under the Drakensberg, and grey vervet monkeys picking off the chickens one by one like a suburban Mafia.
Africa is my past and my future. It winds through me like a dust road, spooling out memories that stop me in the civil tracks of my northern European life, memories that punch the gut.
For how can you ever leave a land where acacia trees spread out like table-tops for the giraffe? A land where beyond the rose garden zebra dot the hillside? A land of canyons and mountains, forests and plains, deserts and beaches that stretch beyond memory. A land of poverty, disease and war, where people laugh with their bodies, shout across streets to greet their friends and cook strangers the very best food in the house.
As a journalist, I visited women whose husbands had died in mine shaft collapses, I went to funerals, I visited crime scenes where there were still slicks of blood on the wall, I sat in hushed court-rooms and listened to people detail murder sentence by sentence. I hovered on the outskirts of demonstrations, visited townships made of tin and learned the rank smell of burnt flesh. But I found the hardness of Africa offset by its beauty, by the willingness of people to laugh and to party. That is the trade-off.
My personal trade-off is that I will educate my children in Europe. One day I hope to occupy a small corner of Africa again. A tiny bit will do, just a place where I can smell spices, see buck on the hillside, invite my friends in for laughter and food, see a bird whose name I know and trees whose leaves form the pattern of my childhood. I don’t live for that future, and neither do I live in my past, but both form a backdrop to the life I have now – a richly textured backdrop that makes me who I am. I am an African.