By Parson Thru
In the last couple of weeks, I have been trying to write up my visit to Malawi (24 October to 11 November 2013). It's hard work. Writing up that experience. Writing up my thoughts. What the fuck it meant to me. I don't want it to be a repeat of the blow-by-blow narrative account of our trip around the USA two years ago. A list of stuff with a few reflections thrown in for good measure.
Africa threw me into a whirl. The contemplation of Africa threw me into a whirl. I swung from practicalist to romantic then back again. On the long, long night of day nine out there, I honestly thought I might die. My other half - the lovely N - played down my suffering, but then she's a nurse. They do that.
Tonight, on the train home from a tragic day at the office, I was reading Kerouac’s “Lonesome Traveler”. I reached page 123, where Kerouac writes “Of course world travel isnt (sic) as good as it seems, it’s only after you’ve come back from all the heat and the horror that you forget to get bugged and remember the weird scenes you saw.”
Yeah. I dig that, Jack. I really do. People ask me (as they ask anyone after such a trip) “How was Malawi?” “How was Africa?” “Did you have a good time?”
I feel bad that I can’t answer them. They seem put-out or disappointed. But I can’t lie to them, any more than I can lie to myself – I made a decision that I wouldn’t do that a long time ago.
Kerouac’s right. It takes time. Maybe a long time before you can cease to be the person experiencing the extremes of such places first hand and start to develop a view – an opinion of the whole thing.
We are not abstract observers of the facts, and yet people want our opinion straight away. That existentialist connection: “But how do you feel, Yossarian?” (Joseph Heller, Catch 22). When your body and mind have been caught in the reality of the experience and suffered in the way mine did, it’s impossible to answer those questions in any way that’s meaningful for the questioners.
It must have been the same for those World War II Air Force bombardiers. It was many years before many of them could talk about their experiences. Experiences! Language has a way of distancing one from the enormity of being shot at every other day. Watching a comrade’s intestines spill onto the floor. Contemplating death in a blazing fuselage. One becomes quickly distanced. Rehabilitation is a long business.
OK. A visit to Malawi doesn’t come close. Even lying, exhausted of shit and puke, unable to sip water, sweating it out under a mosquito net, a day’s drive over rough roads from a hospital, with no electricity, five thousand miles from home and with no health care to speak of, feverish, having intense dreams in five or ten minute periods of sleep, dreaming simply of running a glass under the kitchen tap, doesn’t come close. Not even eight whole days of it comes close. But it can colour the experience that you want to convey to other people, or even just make sense of for yourself.
As we drove around the country, we saw and listened to pitiful hardship. Some of which could be ameliorated with no more than we might spend on a night out. Some of which could be completely resolved for not much more. The cost of the motorbike sitting in the garage could give a young boy the education he needs to free his family from poverty. How do you square that away?
There’s also the tale to tell of all those who make a bloody good living out of such hardship, mzungu and Malawian alike. Ask without embarrassment how your donation is being spent.
On a different level, there’s the nagging ingratitude of having been taken to see elephants, hippos, crocodiles; having climbed 2600m up Mt. Mulanje; flown over the Serengeti. I dreamt of seeing these things from childhood. Our need to experience these sights first hand – to go where Attenborough and his film crew went. Surely, achieving that should be enough.
To be honest, I don’t know if I will ever be able to do justice to the people I met, the things I did and saw, the impact on everything I ever studied, all I ever read in New Internationalist, everything I've heard – my own thoughts.
And so I don’t know where to start – or when. Perhaps, if I ever get time away from working, I will eventually sit down and start to write out some thoughts. Perhaps, one day, I will finally make some sense of all this to myself.