Out of Africa

Why do so many travel books about the continent start the same way?

Published July 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Travel writers are romantics. We like to believe that our feelings and experiences are so personal, so intense, that their meaning cannot be conveyed by other people's language. I believed when I sat down to write my first book about Africa, published in 1988, that I was writing only what I had experienced, what had happened to me. Now I realize that I was doing nothing of the kind. And that what I conceived of as my experiences were themselves, in deep and sometimes untraceable ways, shaped by other people's language.

I found this out when I recently decided to browse the first sentences of travel books about Africa. I have always been interested in first lines -- the way they are maps at a frontier. What would my fellow writers' first sentences tell me?

I started by looking at the travel books about Africa that I owned. To my surprise this small sample revealed striking similarities. I set off for the research library at the University of California at Los Angeles, one of the prominent collections of Africana in the world, and spent the day doing an informal shelf search in the DT section (DT is the Library of Congress designation for African materials). The travel books there backed up my hunch. Intrigued, I prowled through several used bookstores and the local super-bookstore, rapidly pulling and shelving dozens of books. I then dragged a friend to a travel bookstore and asked her how much she would give me if I could predict the topic of the first sentences of their books about Africa. "Nothing," she said wisely, and even I was surprised when I was right four out of five times.

Most travel books about Africa open with the author alone, carried along by some vehicle, looking down over some landscape and feeling anxious.

If I were a critic, rather than a practitioner of the genre, I could start right in with a long essay on this finding. I can't do this, however, because I am distracted by my dismay. To be an utterly "conventional" writer, open your book about Africa with yourself arriving. Let me admit it then: I am guilty as charged.

My first book opens with me on an airplane at an airport in Africa. I express feelings of anxiety and doubt, and then view the city through the window of a taxi. Only one part of my opening can I claim as unique; certainly it is not the confusion at the airport, nor the haggling with porters at the airport, nor the taxi ride away from the airport. If I wanted to, I could approximate my opening by cutting and pasting lines from other books by foreigners about Africa, right down to the mention of the conveyer belt. Voila. My plot, if not my phrasing.

This uncomfortable observation must be underlined by noting that I haven't even looked at the remaining pages of these travel books. What other similarities might I have found if I had addressed more than opening lines and paragraphs?

The question remains to be asked: How is it possible that our books open with such common objects (vehicles), images (vistas) and emotions (vexation)? Is it simply that our experiences were so similar? Even if we were to state that, for the sake of argument, all non-Africans' experiences in Africa are exactly the same, why do we structure our telling of these experiences in the same way? For instance, why didn't I start my book in the middle of my journey and use flashbacks? Why didn't I write my book as a series of character sketches? Why didn't I cluster various experiences by topic instead of chronology? Why didn't I set any part of the book in the United States?

Simply put, because that's not how travel books about Africa are written. That is, when I write I am subject to conventions that I am unaware of at a conscious level. In fact, I was quite proud of the opening of my first book precisely because I thought it was unique. But even I, who grew up in Africa and therefore was not so subject to the travel form, started my autobiography in the standard manner of travel books about Africa -- with the heat, the hubbub and a rickety vehicle. I started my book on Africa just as hundreds of others had.

Don't just take my word for it, though. Let me show you how the openings of travel books about Africa are so similar as to be almost redundant.

Almost invariably books of this genre start with airplanes or ships. Given the transportation mode most practiced then, travel books about Africa written before the 1940s favor ships. Even after airplanes and cars came into wide use, ships continued to open many such books. Consider three opening lines, listed in order from oldest to the most recent:

On the 6th December, 1856, I embarked, with my wife, on board the Royal Mail Screw Steamer Ireland (Lyons McLeod, "Travels in Eastern Africa," 1860).

They were still dancing when, just before dawn on October 19th, 1930, the Azay le Rideau came into harbour at Djibouti (Evelyn Waugh, "Remote People," 1931).

Side by side we stand in silence by the ship's rails (Dorothy Oliver, "Four Wheels Across Africa," 1980).

Since the 1930s the airplane has been a solid favorite. Crack any recent travel book about Africa and you have an excellent chance of finding the author in the first or second sentence on an airplane, in an airport or driving to the airport. Consider these first sentences:

The plane got into Kinshasa at three in the morning (Alex Shoumatoff, "In Southern Light," 1986).

Our plane landed at daybreak (Karl Eskelund, "While God Slept," 1961).

As I boarded the plane for my second return home ... (Rosa Claudette Anderson, "River Face Homeward," 1966).

We touched down at noon. (Dervla Murphy, "Cameroon with Egbert," 1990).

If the book does not open with an airplane or a ship, it very likely starts with some other form of transportation: trains or train stations, an automobile such as a land rover or a taxi, a motorcycle or occasionally, draft animals such as camel or oxen.

Perhaps my point will seem obvious. Books about Africa tend to open with getting there. Travel is about transportation, after all. Since Europe and America do lie some distance from Africa, isn't it sensible to have planes and ships? Doesn't it make a kind of literary sense to start a book about places distant to the reader with vessels of one sort or another? Even if the place is not distant from the author?

Let me put my observation in a different way.

Only one of the books I came across, and I flipped through more than 200, opens with the form of transportation most common in Africa and to Africans: oneself. That is, on foot. The one exception I found refers so indirectly to walking that it hardly seems worth mentioning (L. M. Nesbitt, "Hell-hole of Creation," 1935).

Even those books about hiking through Africa do not start with the narrator on foot. The only book I could find that genuinely starts with someone on foot is not a travel book. It is a novel by Maria Thomas, an American writer who lived and worked in Africa for 12 years and whose death in 1989 only makes what little work of hers we have seem all the more compelling. I include it not as an exception (which of course it cannot be since it exists outside of the genre) but as a critical comment. Her novel "Antonia Saw the Oryx First" (1987) starts "Like an African, the white doctor came to work on foot."

This is the power of fiction: It can say in 11 words and one image what I will only belabor in explaining. Maria Thomas opens with a white person walking on African soil. Not sailing, not riding, not flying, not above-walking. And that walking is not in a wilderness or on safari. Her doctor is in the midst of. She is in a city and surrounded by people. And not for the first time -- this is no arrival scene. Perhaps Maria Thomas had also noted all the machines. I like to think so. As she points out a few lines later, "No one white ever walked in Africa."

I understand why authors don't want to start their books with walking. The problem is that walking is too, well, pedestrian. It is commonplace, and it does not provide the opportunity to do what any travel writer worth their salt is trying to do -- give you the big picture. The walker sees only details, the rider sees the world. In fact, the point of opening with the foreigner inside or astride some vehicle seems to be to provide a vista. The oval pane of the airplane window, the trapezoid pane of the car window, the railing of a ship, all furnish a frame through which we see an entirety: Africa. In my sample of airplane-initiated books, six start with aerial views. I list a few of these here, despite their length, to show you how powerful such an opening is.

Seen from the air west of Cape Verde, at the Westernmost point of Africa, in Senegal, the ocean sunrise, clear red-blue, turns an ominous yellow, and the sun itself is shrouded, ghostly, in this dust of the northeast trade wind of the dry season, known as harmattan, that blows across the great Sahara desert (Peter Matthiessen, "African Silences," 1991).

The plane flew low over the Mauritanian desert. One could pick out the routes of ancient dried-up rivers cut into the eternity of mountainous, uninhabitable rock. But at this height it all looked reassuringly small, like a child's excavations on a beach ... It rapidly became dark, and soon only a ribbon of pink separated the blackness of the sky from the blueness of the haze over the earth, into which we descended as though into an abyss (Mark Hudson, "Our Grandmothers' Drums," 1989).

From the window of the small plane, I looked down and saw the wooded savanna where I would live for the next year. The landscape was dotted with Senufo villages, like models we might have built in grade school geography, tiny and seemingly perfect ... Just outside each village, clearly visible from the air, was a dense circle of trees -- the sacred grove ... The groves had been there long before airplanes were invented, and the thick vegetation had hidden what was inside from curious eyes like mine. Although I peered down, it felt like cheating (Carol Spindel, "In the Shadow of the Sacred Grove," 1989).

The lyricism of these descriptions proves the aesthetic power of the aerial view. But notice how apt the phrase "deus ex machina" is for these openings. The foreigner, citizen of privilege, descends via a sky crane "as though into an abyss." On the one level, such a description of a plane descending into night reflects the eerie beauty of the experience. On another level, Africa is being described as it always has been by Westerners, as a dark, unfathomable place that swallows what is human. Carol Spindel seems most aware of the inherent power of the view from above, calling it a form of "cheating." She acknowledges that she sees Africa as most Africans never do, "from the air." One other writer addresses the issue in her first sentence, but not so directly in terms of power. Elspeth Huxley admits in "Four Guineas" (1954) that the "most illuminating" way to travel in Africa is by bus and bicycle but that for reasons of "haste and comfort" she traveled by car and plane instead.

Starting with a vista ("a distant view through or along an avenue or opening," says Webster's) is not limited to airplane openings. "Through the window I see" is common to car openings as well. Furthermore, many of the travel books that open on ships open on their decks, with the narrator looking over the railing at the African shore.

And again, I understand. Distance enfolds. It allows, even forces, summary. Traditions in logic and literature teach us to proceed from the general to the specific. Pan the horizon and then zoom in. But I think something else is at work here as well: Describing the big picture establishes the authority of the narrator. The view from above, from outside, gives one the right to speak: I have seen the whole. Or, more subtly, it appeals to the reader for admiration or sympathy: Do you see the immensity of the thing that I must cope with alone? How my small self is pitted against a continent?

The appeal of the vista opening is so strong that it gets used even when there is no transportation. The overview does not need a vehicle to be expressed. The window of a hotel can supply a vista and panoramas can be had from hilltops alone.

In other words, what we have in the aerial or littoral opening is a convention of travel openings as common as the transportation convention: the outsider looking down over the landscape, mostly through some protective barrier.

This protective barrier can be multi-layered: the body of a vehicle, the height of a hotel or hill or airplane, the length of the sea. Anything that delineates outside from inside while insulating.

This barrier interests me. It hints at something. It connects, in my mind, to the other thing I have noticed about the openings of travel books about Africa: their persistent mood, or perhaps tone would be a better word. The tone is negative. Expressions of disappointment, anxiety and uneasiness abound. Mary Kingsley tells us in "Travels in West Africa" (1898) that everything people told her about Africa could be categorized under these headings:

The disagreeables of West Africa.

The diseases of West Africa.
The things you must take to West Africa.
The things you find most handy in West Africa.
The worst possible things you can do in West Africa.

It would appear that the sum of our knowledge about Africa can still be so listed. Many non-Africans open their travel books with the expectation of trouble:

Right from the start I know that nothing about this trip is going to go as planned (Thomas A. Bass, "Camping with the Prince," 1990).

Five minutes after my plane touched down at El Fasher airport I knew that something was wrong (Michael Asher, "A Desert Dies," 1986).

Why did I ever go to West Africa and why am I sailing again tonight? This long coastline of evil reputation seldom gives any white exile supreme happiness, and for some is still the "white man's grave" (Lawrence G. Green, "Under a Sky Like Flame," 1954).

I walked out of my cabin and across the deck ... [and looked at the] sullen and livid sky ... I was disappointed. Was this dismal air, this overcast sky, portentous for my journey? (Robert Browne, "Beyond the Cape of Hope," 1965).

Or they open in the middle of trouble.

We were completely lost (H. E. Symons, "Two Roads to Africa," 1939).

The station at Beira was bedlam ... (Sacha Carnegie, "Red Dust of Africa," 1959).

Water squirted through two empty rivet holes wetting my feet, and seeped between flimsy plates each time the metal dinghy slapped the merest swell on the broad and profound face of the Zaire ... (Paul Hyland, "The Black Heart," 1988).

I was sicker than hell (Roger Courtney, "African Argosy," 1953).

I have arrived, the author lets us know, in a place where things do not work out, where I am not in control, where the likelihood is that whatever can go wrong, will. Thus, the barrier of the vehicle, the distance of the vista, do hint at something. Most non-Africans feel that Africa is something that you need to protect yourself from. They indicate that traveling to Africa is to expose yourself, to descend "as though into an abyss." Even while describing the lure of travel, the beauty of a landscape, they manage to insert the opposite: fear and loathing.

Another convention in travel books about Africa, then, in addition to vehicles and vistas, is revulsion. Perhaps this first line says it best:

I arrived in Laive already ... sick of Africa, wanting out (George Packer, "The Village of Waiting," 1988).

I don't want to complain. Any foreigner abroad can be forgiven for expressing apprehension at the start of a journey. Anxiety is the heartbeat of travel. And it has long been a modernist convention to use angst as the motor of narrative. But it must be pointed out that these types of openings are not common in travel books about, say, Provence. Or as common in travel books about China or Argentina. You do not get descriptions of the place of arrival as a "grave," a "murky blackness" or "bedlam." You do not get descriptions of the author as sick, tired or bored.

Why is it that they abound in non-Africans' books about Africa? What are we so afraid of? What do we imagine that Africa threatens us with? And on what do we base this fear, since many of us have never been to Africa and know no one who ever has? In the face of this overwhelming redundancy of transportation, landscapes and anxiety, can we really argue that we are writing exactly what happened to us? Isn't it more likely that we have shaped our experiences to fit the conventions? Or that our experiences themselves are the result of our reading?

Of course, some travel books about Africa do not start with any of these conventions. Hemingway in "Green Hills of Africa" (1935) opens with a description of waiting in a blind for game. (I thought I would find hunting openings more, given the popularity of safari literature as a travel form, but I didn't.) Waugh starts "A Tourist in Africa" (1960) with the necessity of wintering abroad. Two or three books open with the map of Africa spread out before the author. Two or three start by talking about other books about Africa. (Galbraith Welch notes another similarity among books about Africa in his "The Jet Lighthouse" [1960]: "A book reviewer once estimated that over one half of the books which have been written about Africa contain the phrase which Pliny copied from the Greeks to the effect that from Africa something new was always coming.") Beryl Markham waits until the third paragraph of "West with the Night" to mention an airplane and until the sixth to mention vistas. But there aren't many exceptions, and the ones I found often simply had delayed their conventional openings. That is, vehicles and vistas and vexations open their second chapter instead of their first. The first chapter the authors spend, instead, talking about what inspired them to go to Africa. They back up a step in the journey.

Which brings me to the observation I have made before. It is not so much what our books start with as what they don't start with. For instance, don't you think we would sometimes open with people, particularly people from the place we have traveled to?

Travel books about other places do. Jonathan Raban opens his book "Arabia: A Journey through the Labyrinth" with a miscommunication between an Arab man and a white British prostitute. The first line describes the Arab man; the street interaction that follows shows that the woman imagines him to be wealthy, despite all appearances to the contrary, simply because he is Arab. The man does not understand what she wants and, in an attempt to guess, finally pulls out some matches. She curses him and leaves. Raban never once mentions himself.

Other kinds of nonfiction books about Africa do sometimes open with local people. Journalists who report on the continent for national newspapers like the Los Angeles Times or the Washington Post regularly publish expanded versions of their articles in book form, unabashed to title their books "The Africans" or simply "Africa." To their credit, though, both David Lamb and Blaine Harden open with descriptions of Africans, although only one of these introductory men has a name and expressed ideas.

Otherwise, I found only one travel book that opens with an African, and that African not so carefully detailed as Raban's Arab. This is it.

The witch doctor curses (Rory Nugent, "Drums along the Congo," 1993).

Over 200 books and this is the single example of an African in a first line. Whether this African is an improvement on none at all, I will leave to your judgment. I can increase the count to two if I include a preface from Nealey Farson's "Behind God's Back" (1941) in which the author introduces himself along with an African. This is the extent of the introduction: "Another man and I waited to be picked up from a railway station." It should be noted, however, that the African goes nameless and has a "sullen face."

Don't you think, too, that travel books about Africa would sometimes open with villages, where most Africans live? Again, I could only find one, by a former Peace Corps Volunteer. Susan Lowerre's "Under the Neem Tree" (1991) opens with a vista of Walli Jalla, a small village on the banks of a tributary of the Senegal River. The next closest thing to this kind of opening is being treated to views of wild landscapes or views of the city available on the way to the hotel.

No travel books I found started in the midst of a mosque or a marriage or a meal -- to name just a few of the myriad facets of everyday life in Africa.

I don't except myself from this critical observation. The Africa book I am currently writing doesn't start with Africans either. And perhaps starting with African people or cultures would be dishonest of us, a denial of what our books are really about. Our endless fascination with other cultures often amounts to little else than this: what they tell us, through imagined difference, about us. We start with ourselves (rather than Africans) because our books are ultimately about ourselves. We tend to start at the beginning (arriving), go to the middle (surviving) and then end (leaving) because our readers live outside of Africa. We detail landscapes from a protective distance to underline our readerly status as spectators rather than participants. And we are afraid because we have been told in a thousand ways that Africa is a place that will kill us.

None of us sat down to write what we had read about Africa, but that's what we did. Our endlessly similar opening lines put the lie to our romantic image of ourselves as artists creating as no one else can or would. We are, all of us, derivative.

So, you see how it goes. Books create books. And thus, because we read, books about Africa create Africa. Millions of Africans can attest that no book is needed to know the land you live on, the people you live with, the religion you practice, in short, to know what it is to grow up in a place. And, perhaps, if you do not read, if you have never been to school, if you do not listen to the radio or watch television, if you are not Muslim or Christian, if your oral traditions are intact, you can know Africa apart from what has been written about it.

But the very fact that you are reading this essay indicates that you don't and, in a way, can't know Africa apart from your reading. Again, I should know, for neither can I -- and I grew up there. The Africa known by those without books or beyond the long shadow that books cast is a totally different Africa from the one I know. Or will ever know.

I have one more confession to make.

My first book is about returning to the African country where I grew up. My first sentences fit every convention of non-Africans' book openings. Still, I could argue that I only wrote what happened to me. So what, I could say, if non-Africans' autobiographies use the travel form so much that the two forms have become synonymous, ourselves forever arriving. That doesn't mean that my experience wasn't real.

But this would be dishonest. Gauguin and I are alike. Just as he painted some of his pictures of Tahiti before he arrived, I wrote the opening lines of my first book before I went back to Africa.

The very first sentence came to me while I was living in Seattle. It arrived in my head fully written. It's true that it was based on my memories of living in Accra as a child. Still, it was not what happened to me, it was what I imagined would happen to me. When I got off the plane I didn't think, "Here I am." I thought, "Yes, it is how I imagined it would be, how I wrote it to be."

You could say that I went back to see if what I had written was true. This is the circle of reading and writing and experience. No one knows where it leaves off. Or where it begins.

These are the first lines of my first book:

A wave of wet heat swept over me. It pushed by, pungent with asphalt and ocean and greenness. I swayed and clutched the metal railing. Its coolness did nothing to mute this sensation: the warm air was amniotic fluid, and in it I was moving back into something both forgotten and deeply known. Looking up as I descended the steps, I could see the terminal across the shimmering airstrip (Wendy Belcher, "Honey from the Lion," 1988).

By Wendy Belcher

Wendy Belcher grew up in Ghana and Ethiopia. "Honey from the Lion: An African Journey" won several prizes, including the PEN Martha Albrand prize for first book of nonfiction and the Washington State Governor's Award. She lives in Los Angeles and runs a small academic press at UCLA.

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