Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

A is for Africa


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.


I’m joining the challenge set by Courtney and City Wendy to work through the alphabet in short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

27 thoughts on “A is for Africa

  1. I loooove this idea! And I love your post! I cannot wait for B. 🙂

  2. What a great idea for a post. I might do that too. Africa sounds beautiful, I just read Dreams from my Father by Barrack Obama and I thought he described Kenya really well.

  3. Africa sounds like a beautiful and intense place. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  4. I love your feel of Africa and that it is part of your future too. It definitely gets in your blood. I think my kids will feel the same way as you do about it even if they end up living in Europe as adults. Great idea Alphabet history.

  5. Oh my gosh, this is just breathtakingly beautiful writing! I feel as l though I’m in Africa when I read it. While I completely disagree with whoever told you your blog is boring, I am happy you are tackling this project with me. I know i’ve been too wrapped up in my novel to do as much with my blog…am trying to shake out of that.

  6. What lovely poignant writing! I’d really like to live in Africa for a while…

  7. I loved Courtney’s post and I love this one too – beautiful writing, Charlotte!

  8. fantastic post, fantastic idea

  9. Love the idea. Loved the writing. Lovely to have re-inforced what we have that we take for granted. Like so many things in life, dreamlike from a distance, harsh in reality if you forget to focus on the beautiful moments and dream of the positive future.

  10. Hi Charlotte. What an enjoyable read!

    Africa is a theme for me today. Our back track in pump was ‘I will follow the road to Africa’ and whilst pumping away, I remembered people I have met from Africa and thought about movies set in Africa. Africa is alluring, especially after reading your post.

  11. That’s a great idea. I did this on my old blog for a while and got to about M before I lost interest. Maybe I’ll do it again. Btw, I’m starting an Eng. Lit degree in October. Only in the third year do I get to post-colonial literature and women’s writing – it starts off with Homer!

  12. This is a really nice post using a great idea. I might have to adopt this idea, but I believe that if I do, I’ll add a caveat limiting how many words I can write. That would be a good exercise for me.

    I can almost feel myself in Africa when I read this.

  13. You nearly had me in tears. This is so true. I plan the same.

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  15. HI Charlotte–loved this so much, I’m joining in. 🙂

  16. This is so lovely. Makes me feel your homesickness.

  17. Charlotte, this post took my breath away and put a lump in my throat.

    (I also love the alphabet memoir… good idea, although I can hardly start with ‘A is for Australia’ after this show stopper!)

  18. Oooooooooh, FUN! Challenge accepted.

    And beautifully described, Charlotte, wow.

  19. Charlotte, this is just lovely.

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  21. Wow, Charlotte, that writing is superb. I loved the images of Africa and it reminded of so many things I love about living here. Easy to get caught up in the negativity of the place but you make it sing.

  22. I love this idea – and I *love* your post.

    Africa is like beach sand that you cannot get out of your sandals. It stays with you wherever you are and spills out into your thoughts when you least expect it.

    I also miss the smell of rain on hot tar roads – what is it about that smell??? And I brought a few lucky beans to London with me, rolling around in the bottom of my handbag, to roll between my fingers when I feel the need to connect to my childhood. I also hope one day to occupy a tiny corner again – one where I can smell the sea, hear the hadedas and see the Southern Cross.

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  25. Beautiful post! You and Court have inspired me. I’m definitely going to join this game soon (once I get Maine off my mind. Hmmm…wonder if I can skip ahead to “M”?)

  26. I saw your comment at Courtney’s about fearing your blog to be boring, and beat it over here immediately.

    I was astonished and delighted to see your first post “A for Africa”. My experiences was quite different from yours – work in Liberia, travel in West and North Africa – but still….

    Here is the truth. When I came to Liberia from the States, I never was homesick. When I returned to the States, I was homesick beyond belief – so much so that I returned ten years later.

    I may do the alphabet challenge, but I think the time has come to write about Africa. Thank you for a beautiful post that reignited my feelings for the continent.

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