November 22, 2003 - Personal Web Site: Nowhere in Africa by Nigeria RPCV Suzy McKee Charnas

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Nigeria: Peace Corps Nigeria : The Peace Corps in Nigeria: November 22, 2003 - Personal Web Site: Nowhere in Africa by Nigeria RPCV Suzy McKee Charnas

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Nowhere in Africa by Nigeria RPCV Suzy McKee Charnas

Nowhere in Africa by Nigeria RPCV Suzy McKee Charnas

The vast majority of Americans in their twenties have never been outside our country, let alone immersed for more than a year to a Third World culture as working people rather than tourists. What we don't know hurts us; worse, through our enormous, fatuous ignorance, it hurts others living outside this country but also living economically and politically at our mercy, badly and often fatally.

Nowhere in Africa

I blot my eyes while the credits roll, and what the hell is this anyway? I've just sat through a two-and-a-half hour movie without ever shifting cheeks. Nowhere in Africa rocked me back, hard.

The movie is about a German Jewish family in Kenya, living there for a decade as refugees from the Nazis and then being uprooted again to return "home", with all that this entails, after the war. It's about how home is created, and about the way periods of one's life can exist in memory as containers of brilliant experience and meaning and feeling, sealed off at beginning and end and receding inexorably into the past as the life continues.

I know a little of what young Regina will face when she gets to Frankfurt after a childhood spent in rural Africa. Although my return from Peace Corps work in Nigeria in 1963 wasn't a return to an America devastated by war and revelations of atrocity right on the doorstep, it was the return of a young person to a country beginning to reel into the defeat, and revelations of atrocity wreaked by us on the doorstep of others, and the deep divisions in popular attitudes (not healed even yet), caused by the Viet Nam War.

I know quite a lot about being reminded, now and then throughout four decades after, of a time when I was young and eager, living in another country, another culture, sometimes (it seemed) another era, among intensely vivid peoples and cultures. I try to resist romanticizing those days (although resistance is, as it were, futile).

The film does romanticize, for example when preadolescent Regina is told by her African friend that upon returning from boarding school in Nairobi, whatever the white child will be the black one will be no longer a girl but a woman. What that surely meant at that time in that place is that the black child will have suffered the barbaric cultural practice of female genital mutilation. This detail is avoided in the movie, as indeed it must be if the overall story of a youngster making herself a home in a foreign place is not to turn into a protest film against the situation of black women in much of rural Africa both then and now.

The film closes with Regina and her family on a train drawing steadily further from an elderly African woman in a bright orange wrap who strides onward and away after a small act of spontaneous kindness, about her own business and dwindling from view. You do not want to be thinking at that moment about the deliberate mutilation, entrenched repression, disease, and early death. You want to think of a moment of warmth and connection uniting people despite diverging lives, of the preciousness and the sadness of inexorable change and loss.

In fact what I thought about was how all this was the past, and how Africa today is so racked and riven by the terrible legacy of an imperialism withdrawn without effective preparation -- the endless intertribal warfare, disease, the persistent political culture of rigged election and military coup, and the spreading urban slums.

When I left Nigeria the Biafran civil war was already bubbling up. Widespread political corruption rode roughshod over the proud and eager promise of homegrown democracy so evident only two years before, and tribalism was digging ever deeper the divisions between ethnic groups. Since then there's been a depressing downhill slide of dictatorship, repression and political looting of the country's vast resources, all now compounded by an increasingly militant fundamentalism in the Islamic North.

Surely there are places where cooperative village life continues, and where a modern version of that energetic old woman still strides confidently from one bit of her own business to another over the red African soil -- unless that life has entirely withered away since, as it has in other places under the ferocious blasts of war, disease, and poverty.

Because of those decades of ruin I have not been back to Nigeria since 1963; also because my story is not like this German family's, or for that matter like the story of Karen Blixen, of "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills" -- which is, as I remember it, the opening line of her classic book of a similar location but a period somewhat earlier than that of this movie, Out of Africa.

When I went to Nigeria I was too eager to commence my own independent, adult life, too full of myself, my plans, my curiosity; and I didn't stay long enough to make the deep emotional connections that both Regina and Karen Blixen made with the Africans closest to them, employees and associates, men (for the most part) of humor, dignity, and a willingness to teach and to learn. My stinging eyes are in part a recognition of this: an opportunity lost, in the headlong rush toward the rest of a life to be lived elsewhere.

More importantly, though, I think I am more like Regina's father, Walther, than like her. Uwuor, who works as the family's cook and as Regina's vital link with the surrounding country and culture, feels too close to Regina to bear to say goodbye, but to the father he says, "I will never forget you; you taught me so many words," a reference to the early efforts of the parents to teach him German rather than to learn his language (although in the end all the newcomers are fluent in the local tongue). Walther taught, keeping his distance; Regina learned, and in learning became close to the people around her.

I was already too old to be so open, and -- or -- too young to realize the opportunities flying past me. I'd better reread my journals of those days, to see how true this is -- or is it only a leakage of sentiment occasioned by reminders of youthful adventure, of times past?

There are barriers on both sides. How easy is it to reach out to foreigners when one comes, like Uwuor in this film, from a culture where family and other kinship relationships are paramount? Harder, because the kin group or local culture may misunderstand and disapprove? Easier, because the firm grounding in culture and kin provides emboldens one to take risks like that, knowing that one's self can't be lost? In many cultures it seems to me that friendship -- relationship by choice outside the kinship net -- has a value and a power that Americans, with our rapid pace and easy geographical range, have trouble even recognizing, let alone honoring or returning.

I rarely glimpse that close and lasting friendship here in America (except in our movies, where it is often turned into a cartoon for carrying the true story, which is of violence). Perhaps that is partly my own shortfall. Like many writers, I am, personally, something of an introvert, and inclined to press on with writing work even if it means neglecting social ties. This movie made me think about lost opportunities -- my own, but also others'.

The vast majority of Americans in their twenties have never been outside our country, let alone immersed for more than a year to a Third World culture as working people rather than tourists. What we don't know hurts us; worse, through our enormous, fatuous ignorance, it hurts others living outside this country but also living economically and politically at our mercy, badly and often fatally.

During the summer of 2003, there's to be an exhibit about John F. Kennedy at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. I know about it because I was contacted about lending some sketches I made in Nigeria in 1961 and '62 to the exhibition (the curators had come across my sketches while researching the initiation of the Peace Corps at the John F. Kennedy Library at Columbia Point, near Washington D.C.). I know a lot more about JFK now than I did in those early years of naiveté (my own and lots of other peoples'), and a lot of what I know I don't much care for.

But the establishment of the Peace Corps as it began, as a program meant to uproot youngsters from their comfortable, stupefying, privileged lives for a couple of years (although many stayed on longer by re-upping or going on to private contracts with host governments) -- that was grand, hopeful, and generous gesture, generous to all concerned. It was pragmatically optimistic in a way that has since been intentionally and falsely distorted and discredited by mean-minded, grabby-handed, ruthlessly selfish and narrow forces on the Right.

I am so fed up with being bossed around and lied to by scared, swaggering, pissy little men, their small, tight hearts bursting with self-righteousness and greed glittering in their weasily eyes (Big Hat, No Cattle -- the song says it all). We are so much better than that; we always were. I hope we will be soon again.

Meanwhile, go see Nowhere in Africa for a bit of the flavor of what truly well-intentioned international experience is -- what it means, how it feels, how it strengthens and nourishes all concerned, how it is our only hope of holding the world together in some degree of safety long enough for humanity to grow up.

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Story Source: Personal Web Site

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Nigeria; Writing - Nigeria; Speaking Out



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