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A complex affair

Love affairs. We’d like them to be bright and breezy, like pompoms and smiles. But they are not. For love affairs, while they have their breezy side, are complex and dark. Well, that’s how it’s been for me in Africa these past few years that have seen me exploring its contours, from Luanda to Lagos.

During my travels I discovered I was following in the footsteps of Mary Kingsley, a controversial explorer, who, a century ago, followed the same route.

Kingsley was obsessed with Africa, and her anti-missionary views were widely published in the 1890s in English newspapers and books. She shocked England at a time when a good Englishwoman’s ambitions should have been about finding a husband and running a neat home.

But this was of no interest to Kingsley, whose passion lay in the rituals and fetishes of Africa, not the niceties of English life. For her, Africa was a worthy love affair. In 1892 at the age of 30, after losing both parents, an inheritance of £500 a year meant that she was free to roam.

Without thinking twice Kingsley left Britain on a cargo ship in 1893. She sailed down the west coast of Africa from Freetown to Luanda, then made her way overland through the continent to the shores of Lagos.

One hundred years later, I retraced her steps. Kingsley, like me, was unmoved by European vacations or beaten track tours. What we wanted was Luanda, Lagos, Togo, Dar — places often described as ”Hell”.

Hell, it should be said, is not inaccurate when describing certain aspects of this continent. Apart from its propensity for war, crime, death, disease, violence and corruption, Africa also tests us with Hell’s more pedestrian side. Traffic congestion in Lagos comes to mind. But time and again in Africa, it’s when you reach breaking point and you’re longing for home comforts that a hand reaches out and offers you a fish.

Today we have interpreters to help us, which was certainly not the case in Kingsley’s day. She had to cope with sign language and a rare, shared word. She also had to cope with months of travelling on foot, whereas we have the convenience of aircraft.

Surmounting all obstacles, Kingsley’s affair led her into the wildest jungles and mangrove swamps, sporting her voluminous skirt and blouse. She also spent time with many tribes, learning about African social systems — inspiring her to speak out against the ”white race’s” determination to change Africa’s ways.

”The white race seems to me at fault in saying that the reason for its interference in Africa is the improvement of the native African,” she wrote. ”And then to start altering African institutions without in the least understanding them.”

There is a lot about Africa that is difficult to understand. Africa is a complex lover with infinite layers, punctuated as much with dignity and goodwill as with trick or treat.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the fetish dens of West Africa, where I was hoodwinked in the most charming manner.

It happened in a fetish market in Lome — Togo’s capital city. A man took me to see his friend, who spoke in an unintelligible tongue to his ancestors. After a while the medicine man produced a white clay doll. ”The ancestors have instructed me to give you this,” he stated. ”It is the most powerful love charm in Africa.”

I was about to leave when the medicine man explained that the ancestors were requesting a donation and that they preferred American dollars.

After much debate, the ancestors dropped their price from $100 to $20 and my guide led me out of the market.

This brings me back to Kingsley, who had many an encounter with astute traders in Africa — including the Congo’s cannibalistic Fan tribe.

She had no need of the ivory or rubber the Fans wanted to trade, but she had no choice in the matter because they wanted her tobacco and cloth.

Within a short while her trading supplies were exhausted, which, as she wrote in Travels in West Africa in 1897, was not a good thing: ”To be short of money anywhere is bad, but to be short of money in a Fan village is extremely bad, because these Fans, when a trader has no more goods to sell, are liable to start trade all over again by killing the trader …”

Kingsley lived to tell the tale, but a shortage of trading supplies or hard cash in Africa remains an evergreen problem. There are many places in Africa that will sap your funds. Luanda comes to mind — rated among the most expensive cities in the world.

Luanda. The untouchable capital, about which so little is known. A city shrouded in oil, diamonds and dubious dealings, freshly rinsed from its 40-year war. In its past two years of peace, Luanda has changed and business is flourishing, but its economy is dollar-based and remains wildly inflated. Be warned, you get more for your dollar in New York than Luanda.

A modest rice dish with a few prawns can easily set you back $40 and a tot of whiskey about $8. More, if you unwittingly wander into one of the city’s fashionable beach bars.

At one of the beach bars I met three women doctors from Belgium on a break from the rural hospital where they worked. ”We’ve come to Luanda to escape the harshness of the rural areas for a few days,” they explained.

This reminded me of Kingsley and how, in 1899, she had come to South Africa to nurse soldiers in Simonstown during the Anglo Boer war. Less than a year later, aged 38, she died of typhoid fever. She had survived some of the deepest, darkest nooks in Africa, yet it was Simonstown with all its tame English ways that got her in the end.

The moral of this story is that it’s safer in the long run to be adventurous in love.

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Heather Dugmore
Heather Dugmore is a journalist and specialist writer for higher education

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