From Cairo a night train took me south to Aswan. At Aswan there was a steamer down Lake Nassar and, eventually, the open Nile. We passed the pyramids at Abu Simbal and the next morning we were already in what had once been ancient Nubia.
Among the other travelers on the steamer and later on the train to Khartoum was a French guy and his well-endowed girlfriend, on their way to Zaire to check out the music scene. The only other Westerners on board were a young uptight British couple who had been studying Arabic in Alexandria. The Africans themselves were more interesting than any of us, and one traveler in particular caught my eye, both on the boat and later again on the train to Khartoum.
He was a Christian boy, tall and willowy, with shiny ebony-smooth skin. Originally from southern Sudan, he had been studying in Cairo but was returning home to become a guerrilla in the never-ending civil war against Sudan’s Moslem government. Gentle, unaffected, with an easygoing sense of humor, he suggested a little of what a young Martin Luther King Jr. might have been like-if MLK had decided not to turn the other cheek. Before long the Sudanese boy was trying to convince me to see Moslems as he did: extremists, intent on beating down the Christian south of the country and cutting off the hands of anyone who resisted.
Looking at the sheathed daggers and hard blue-black faces around me in the train carriage, there wasn’t much doubt that Sudan’s religious majority included some pretty tough customers. But after only one day in-country it seemed like a good idea to keep an open mind.
If you really think about it, Africa has an undeserved place in the consciousness of black Americans. Most of our families have been on the North American continent for hundreds of years. The slave trade ended almost two centuries ago. Perhaps the way we left in the first place (chains and all), without a chance to settle business or say good-bye, explains why after hundreds of years, we feel we’re being called back.
Khartoum was exceptional because it was the major urban pause of my pilgrimage. The central market attracted me with great cold glasses of lemonade, and in the Kartoum market, too, my first encounters with average Africans took place. Once or twice men passed me, looked up into my face, smiled toothily, and said what sounded like, “How are ya?” A few weeks later, another Westerner explained that the Sudanese had not been asking about my health, but were saying, “Cou-ad-je”: an Arabic phrase for which one translation is “foreign devil,” or infidel.
The rude encounter in the Khartoum marketplace turned out to be pretty much my experience everywhere. There’s a misconception about going “back” to Africa. Native Africans do not always meet African Americans with open arms. What they know of us they have mostly picked up secondhand, through the media, and the news has not all been good: crime, race riots, police brutality … missed opportunities. On a purely emotional level, our presence in the Motherland isn’t always welcome. It’s what psychologists call a double bind: We’re blamed if we don’t come back, and cursed if we do.
Some Africans, for example, hold it against us for not coming back sooner. What can you tell them? “I got here as soon as I could … But I’m not staying.” Others don’t understand why we came at all. You had a choice between Bamako and New York City, their eyes ask, and you chose Bamako? (There are, in fact, some embarrassing questions to be asked on both sides. For one thing we in the black diaspora would like to know what’s all this Hutu/Tutsi, Christian/Moslem crap? Is it like the difference between Crips and Bloods? Or is it more like Methodists and Baptists?)
Illness colored the whole journey, giving every watering hole an unhealthy glow. Leaving Khartoum, looking out the window of the train, there were thin cows and dry brush, emaciated kids, green hills in the distance. What surprised me most was that, everywhere, the barriers to communication seemed high: French, English, Arabic, Hausa, Swahili, Afrikaans-there was no common language. And even when everyone was speaking the same tongue, that didn’t mean that anyone understood what their neighbor was saying.
In the Central African Republic my bush-taxi (a truck, really, carrying goods and passengers from village to village) passed a man leaning against a tree. The villager looked exactly like a brother leaning against a lamppost on a street corner in Chicago or L.A. He had that same style – the same insouciance – that same cool in even metaphysical heat, that black Americans are famous for. My first reaction was a desire to call out, “Say, blood, what it is? Your old lady kick you out of the hut, or what?”
One evening the bush taxi stopped at a village for water. There were a dozen huts and a well in the center of the village, between two tall trees. In the background, the villagers’ animals walked past like pedestrians on a grand avenue. Everything in the village was pretty like a postcard, except we weren’t there for the scenery. When you came to water, no matter how you felt, you drank. You had to drink for that day and drink for the next day, also. Tomorrow there might be no village and no well.
“How far to Bangui?” one of the passengers asked the driver.
“One day,” he answered. “Perhaps two.”
The driver’s reply had to be converted to reality. In the bush you needed an algorithm for any time someone told you how long it would take to do something or how long it required to go somewhere. My own personal formula was to multiply by two and add four. If the driver had said a few hours, that would have meant a full day. But the driver said one day and that meant one week. Maybe two.
Later at a roadblock in Cameroon, on the old Slave Coast, a policeman pulled me off a bus. Of all the passengers on board he chose to roust only me. He started to search my gear-he was sure that he was going to find a gun. “I know these Americans,” he said when the driver asked why he was hassling me.
The poor dumb cop had probably never met an American before in his life, but had seen enough television to make him suspicious that this nigger had a gun. The result was the African policeman’s very good imitation of a redneck Southern sheriff.
My trip to Africa was a little like taking LSD-complete with hallucinations and, eventually, flashbacks. For me, the continent became a kind of multi-layered experience, full of sunlight like a continuous camera flash, and bright, violent colors. Over a period of months there was, of course, illness, unexpected encounters with dangerous wildlife … and more illness. On the plus side, there were babes in multi-colored wrap-around skirts. But as the heat took its toll, even an erection took too much energy.
And however exciting the journey began, when the light became too bright, and the textures got too rough to touch, it was time to go home: home to the urban jungle, America. The leaving of Africa, as it turned out, was the best part of the journey. My departure from paradise revisited, was in a town called N’Djamena, in a country called Chad.
It was late -too late to find a hotel room. Sleeping on a bench outside the Catholic mission was the only practical alternative to getting up on my feet and moving. Until that night my experience had been that mosquitoes generally attack at daybreak and at dusk. Chad’s variety bit from dusk to dawn.
The next day, at the American embassy, my visit caught the U.S.Consul unprepared. Chad is the kind of place you only go to if you have a really really good reason. The Consul just kept looking at me with this unspoken question on his lips: “What are you doing here?”
That became my question, too. It took almost a week to get a ticket out. In the meantime, the hotel was forty dollars a day, as much as the previous week’s travel. Still, it was good to lie down in air-conditioning and not have to move. The Chadian bureaucracy was as hungry as the mosquitoes. In order for me to leave, three different police officials (including an officer of the presidential guard) had to stamp my exit visa. The reason for the attention to detail was, of course, that each officer needed the few hundred francs that travelers were forced to pay.
When the plane finally lifted off, that was a disappointment, too. It was an Air Afrique flight, with plenty of extra seats for stretching out. But when we were in the air, the captain announced that we were making a detour to Nigeria to pick up more passengers. There was no rest after that. In minutes, the plane was full of Muslim tribesmen on their way to Khartoum, the first stop of their pilgrimage to Mecca.
Dinner was served somewhere over the central African savannah. My stomach wouldn’t even hold tea. Discreetly, my hand pushed the plastic-covered dinner tray onto the table of the elderly Hausea seated next to me. He pushed it back. He didn’t say anything, but his eyes told me, “I may be an uneducated villager from what you call the Dark Continent, but I’m not dumb enough to eat airline food.” At that moment we became blood brothers. We became as one, in our mutual Negritude.
Contributing writer Lucius Lomax covers Austin and the World for the Observer.