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The International Writers Magazine: On Africa and Wildness

Phantom Elephants, Rhino’s and Coca Cola: Searching for the Elusive Wild Through Nature and the Third World
Kody Thompson
I longed for an adventure so I sought it out in rural Africa.


Humanitarian endeavors aside, I wanted the visceral and enigmatic Africa that I had heard so much about. And I wasn’t disappointed: the first week I arrived in Zambia I met a woman who was widowed because her husband had been bitten in half by a hippo, an elder in the village who’s oldest son was struck by a fatal lightning bolt which shot through the roof of his mud-hut as he slept, and another man, who had to attack a python with a spear because it had killed his dog. And of all the places to stay, I had the good fortune of residing on a tobacco farm. The farm was owned by a white Zimbabwean man who drank fine scotch, had a scar on his left calf—an old wound inflicted from a wild boar hunt that went bad—and he had the most outrageous hunting stories I have ever heard: he told me of an associate of his who had his stomach torn open by a hippo. The man had no choice other than to walk a mile back to his camp in the middle of the night with his intestines cradled in his arms. But luckily, a doctor—a drunken doctor, but a doctor nonetheless, was found vacationing at that camp and was able to stitch the man up well enough with dental-floss in order to make it to the hospital and survive. It had seemed to me that with my arrival in Zambia, I had everything necessary to follow in Hemmingway’s footsteps.

      Because I have been born and raised in the relatively high level affluence of Canadian culture, I wanted the feeling of peril and chance encounters on a scale I had never known. Now—I understand that Africa is a continent and not a country—but no matter what, there is always some kind of awe that emanates from the very word “Africa.” Even before I left Edmonton, I was told by a South African immigrant that “there is something about Africa that just reminds a person of death: it’s in the air, in the dirt; the feeling is everywhere.” So although I was going to build a school, I had it in my mind that Africa was a very wild place and that I was about to step into chaos. I was going to brave the elements and venture into a mystical place of elephants, rhinos and tribal art.

      This is what my good intentions had come down to: humanitarian-aid efforts made into attempts to grasp at adventures that might be sought in the undesirable, rugged places of the earth. I thought to myself: “I’m not some bar-star at an all-inclusive resort get away, I’m different. I’m in the African wilderness seeing the real deal.” I had “street cred.” The notion of being in the “third world” made me feel that I was as adventurous as Indiana Jones or one of those coarse and mysterious white men you always see in movies with tanned, unshaven-faces who are always found in some remote foreign location, in some obscure bar or village, working as airplane smugglers, boat captains, or hunters who know the local languages and “ropes” of the cultures they inhabit—and well enough that they are always inducted into sacred native rites and festivities, sipping on cows blood and graced with the seat of honor in all tribal gatherings.   

zambia But as my stay went on I met numerous people infected with HIV, children with severe malnutrition and people suffering or dying from diseases that are really non-issues as they are preventable by western medical standards. It was enough reality to make me understand that the novelty of an over idealized self-image is something I can do without.

In fact, there weren’t even any animals in the village because people were so poor and hungry that they had long since killed them for food: where lions once roamed and stalked amongst tall grasses, there were instead empty Fanta cans tossed aside from a the nearby walking path; where trees grew tall, there were only stumps because they had been chopped down to make charcoal to provide income for families; though I also heard of a mysterious Kapasow—or village strong men—there weren’t any. The closest thing I saw to a tribe was an offshoot group of Polygamist Jehovah Witness who danced in frocks and carried symbolic sheep herding canes. The closest thing I saw to tribal art was a hand painted sign on thatched board that warned “Beware Of Crocodiles.”

Nevertheless, I was able to see that nearly everyone had cell-phones and Coca-Cola could be purchased anywhere. Where was the great untamed wilderness I expected? Where was my adventure: near misses with poison arrows, painted faces, stampeding elephants and bizarre folk lore? My friend Chanda, whom I met in the village, would’ve asked me a similar question if he ever came to Canada, since he questioned: “In Canada, do you have the Red Indian?” I just looked at him puzzled; so he elaborated with his hands up by his head as if they were eagle feathers: “you know—the Wild Brave?”

      “I never saw a wild thing feel sorry for itself” wrote D.H. Lawrence. Likewise, I met people who didn’t feel sorry for themselves yet suffered like no one I had ever seen before: the land was wild, untamed and cruel. It is well known that the meaning, awe—or speculative sublimity of the natural world has been debated for quite some time and continues as a hot topic among theologians and eco-critics alike. But the debate matters little. Whether atheist or believer, a waterfall or mountain top is still a striking object of aesthetic beauty to behold and may be moving regardless of personal religious leanings. Similar to this debate, my whole African experience has led me to believe that the idea—or meaning of wilderness is very different from nature and quite removed from it, in terms of how nature is commonly perceived.

      Specifically, my experience in Zambia taught me that there is a great disconnect between nature in terms of her natural condition as a life force—or system of biological organisms working together in a matrix of harmonious interdependence—and that of the very notion of wild in terms how we perceive the “wild-ness” of the natural environment. For example, Henry David Thoreau viewed nature as something commonly different from the common understanding of wilderness; Thoreau responded to the grandeur of nature with the devotion of an ascetic monk or Zen Buddhist. In Walden he writes: "If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen." What Thoreau describes specifically, is an example of nature as something interconnected with the human spirit; nature to him is an object deserving of reverence and deep meditation. But the great factor to keep in mind—the characteristic responsible for all of the confusion about what nature is exactly, is that nature is equally as cruel as it is enchanting.

      For Thoreau, living amidst the wilderness was about balance, harmony and a special connection to one’s own humanity. However, conversely, wild—or wilderness is all too often connected with the notion of savagery or cruelty. Wildness is a construct that has less proximity to the physical world and more to do with the condition of human morality: the “Wild West” earns renown and brims with a feeling of excitement, enchant and chaos; a vicious creature is thought to be both dangerous and “wild.” And though beautiful, the natural world is also dangerous, but to say it is wild is somewhat misleading.

      This brings me to a fancy word I learned in University: “Phenomenology.” It means that objects only have meaning within the registered consciousness of the perceiver. That said, I would go so far as to say that the quality of a wild thing does not exist save for the human mind. Although nature seems cruel; although wilderness in the sense of “Wildness” is on par with brutality or the notion of savagery, the quality of the wild is as much phenomenological as it is theological: what I mean specifically is to ask the question of how it may be possible that a thing can be wild if it functions in accordance with its only true and natural state of being? The brutality we see in the natural world is really commonplace. The brutality is both normal and appropriate. But when human perspective imbues wilderness within the human condition, only then does wilderness become gruesome and unsightly. When humans play the role of observer and evaluate killing, cannibalism and other such disturbing but otherwise natural occurrences, these acts become translated into human ones. Only then do we see the tooth and nail ferocity of nature as horrendous and abominable; simply because it would be wrong for us to act as the animals do.

      Therefore, I would go further to argue that this is largely because humanity is caught in such a state of disharmony with the natural world, to such a magnitude, that we find ourselves existentially cursed by it. We understand wilderness as something we know—as something that belongs outside the domain of the human condition, yet we long for the quality of naturalness and harmony that we don’t instinctively possess. Therefore nature becomes something of a paradoxical mirror in which we gaze: we see both our human yearning for wholeness—a yearning that we know must be satisfied in order for contentment, yet we also see our alienation to the land and its systems; nature is the shadow of Eden hanging before us. The natural world is both the symbol of our ruin and proof of paradise.

      But because we are separated from nature on an existential level, we are also abhorred by wilderness and the naturalness of its savagery—knowing that we cannot behave as the animals lest we become wild ourselves and cease being human. We believe that conditions are unappealing, say—when a lion has the potential of eating its cub—however, this is just a common possibility under fairly normal circumstances. The fact that I perceive a thing wild—be it place, an animal or person—means that I have some kind of distinction, or thought outside of harmony with the natural world. A natural thing—a wild thing—knows no other way of being. Perhaps this is the underlying reason for our abuse and industrial domination of the natural world: we are vengeful of being trapped in this diseased, imbalanced, bifurcated human condition, so much so that we find ourselves angry at the land for not receiving us back.

      What I am describing is very similar to a term known according to post-colonial criticism as “un-homeliness”—only in this case it’s theological rather than cultural. Returning to my experience in Zambia, I now see that the wildness of the land is also tied to the poverty of the culture. Accordingly, the wildness of the culture also functions as a mirror. I now see that my idealistic desire for adventure in the backdrop of a rustic African savage-land was due to a yearning for wholeness. I wanted to connect with something pure—something real. But conversely, by being in Zambia I also came to realize that the savage places of world—the culturally wild places on earth—are as much a reflection of the barbarity of humanity as nature is cruel. However, in this case there is a profound sense of irony as we see in the “civilized” world the veiled viciousness that is wreaked upon developing nations. As humanity finds itself alienated from the land existentially, likewise we also find ourselves alienated from each other on a global level. Many developing nations struggle because of the economic and cultural disharmony that is wreaked upon them due to outside, and especially, western domination: with “not so free” trade and our sweat-shop industries of merchandise procured from a thriving economy of various blood industries: oil, cocoa, diamonds, coltan, sneakers, clothing and the list goes on.

      Despite seeming limitless technological innovations, our human nature is currently not so far away from the wild-ness Joseph Conrad depicted in his polemical (and arguably satirical work) Heart of Darkness. The differences between the civilized nature of the white European colonizers, contrasted with the savage ways of the natives, demonstrates that the boundaries between the two cultures are blurred to the point that the reader must question who is more savage: despite there lack of technology—and despite their cannibalism, loin cloths and spears, the native Africans are capable of seemingly genteel, while the exploitative colonizers are depicted as wildly barbaric and guilty of vanities of unforgivable proportions.

      So the question that must be asked is which is more wild, us humans or animals? The civilized or the savage? Although there may never be a full reductionist answer to explain exactly what it means to be human, we could find ourselves traveling to a point where even the possibility of striving for an answer isn’t an option. Even then, though a lion may eat its cub, I doubt that we will ever see a day where it might introduce a system of systematic slavery upon its own species—or create an industry of profitable, but cancer-causing products that make billions for its shareholders. If they could speak to us, I wonder what the animals would say.
 © kody thompson June 15th 2010

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