African Journey 1: The Africa Bug

A young girl does joyful flips off a sand dune into Madagascar’s Tsiribihini River. Photo by Thelma Bowles.

While taking off from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Ethiopia Airlines, I noticed a lot of water running across the wings. A bit alarmed, I asked a stewardess what was happening. “It’s just ice melting,” she said. “It’ll stop eventually.”

I felt like I was already in Africa, a place where bad things either do or do not happen and all you can do is wait to see which it will be.

The waiting itself becomes the key to the game. Time is not an African word. Waiting for a way to get from A to B. Waiting endlessly for a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza at a hotel, a roadside stand. Waiting on a blocked highway not knowing why. Waiting to watch lemurs watching us. Waiting for shade, for a breeze, for the cool of the hour before sunset, the best time in Africa.

The necessity for patience and a certain fatalism are part of the Africa bug. Once you are bitten by the African bug, the symptoms, although sometimes long invisible, are incurable and sure to recur.

Endemic gelada monkeys have fun in Ethiopia’s Semien Mountains. Photo by Thelma Bowles.

More than 30 years ago, my wife and I served two years as Peace Corps teachers in Niger. Although we had never returned to Africa, something about the continent, its suffering and humanity, its earthiness and wild beauty bit deeply beneath our skin and became part of our substance.

In November, we had the chance to return to Africa after our long absence, this time to visit two unique countries, Ethiopia and Madagascar, some 4,000 miles from our earlier home in Niamey.

Our travel plans were a mite unusual. We rendezvoused in Ethiopia, at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, with Theresa, my wife’s twin sister, who flew in from her home in Oslo, Norway, via Istanbul.

She had spent the night in the Addis airport awaiting our arrival the next day. After a happy reunion, the three of us immediately boarded another Ethiopia Airlines plane for the 1,500-mile flight south to Madagascar. It seemed like a miracle, but our convoluted itinerary worked out precisely as we had planned.

After a month in Madagascar, the three of us returned to Ethiopia, where Theresa stayed a week, and my wife and I spent another month before flying back to Chicago and then taking an overnight train to Albuquerque.

Children, the charmers of Africa, in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region. Photo by Thelma Bowles.

During our two months in Africa, we were never seriously ill, we ate street food and boiled our own water (there’s no potable tap water anywhere in either country). We never felt threatened by anyone, and were only once in danger—from a vicious thunderstorm on the Tsiribihini River in Madagascar.

We were frequently hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, tired, frustrated, impatient and uncomfortable. But in the worst moments, a woman would begin singing on a bus, we would surmount a tortuous mountain to arrive in a sunlit meadow, a prayerful drum beat in a church would carry us back to the Middle Ages, or the crew of our caravan of canoes would begin to chant an old work song to ease the pain of their rhythmic rowing.

In Africa everything always seems to be either ecstatically wonderful or uncompromisingly awful, too hot or cold, crowded or lonely, the colors too bright, the sun too glaring and the nights too black. (Because of the widespread absence of electric lights, the African nights are the blackest in the world.)

Africa is a continent of sensory overload: bright red earth bleeding into the aquamarine ocean, mountain streams milky with human detritus running between harsh stone towers or soft fields of grain, big rivers chocolate colored from eroded soil, black skins powdered with the dust of unpaved roads, overcrowded buses and trucks smelling of the sweat of too many bodies jammed into too small a space, the rattle of old buses on rutted roads, the chants of the faithful, the music of people who love song, and the gleeful shouts of children cavorting in rivers and lakes, on piles of grain and in city streets, everywhere.

Despite extreme poverty, Africans are by and large kind and generous, even to foreigners far wealthier than themselves. I had to keep reminding myself to stop feeling guilty because I had more money than they did.

Like Blanche in the Tennessee Williams drama, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” we always depended on the kindness of strangers. They seldom disappointed us.

There is a lot of suffering in Africa, but there is a lot of joy too.The closer the juxtaposition of the two, it seems to me, the more intense the ecstasy of the experience.

Above all there are the unpredictable stories of human beings communing across the chasms of continents and cultures. A sticker on a car driving on Route National 7, Madagascar’s best road, proclaimed, “By the grace of god I am what I am.”

Wally and Thelma with the otherworldly colors of the Danakil Depression in the background.

A journey in Africa is life lived. My wife and I would tell each other over and over again, with a smile and a shrug, “C’est l’aventure.” Africa is an adventure.

NEXT WEEK: MADAGASCAR—IT’S A MAD PLACE