Often, in the early hours of the African sun, the savannah is brushed with silver and the air for a brief moment is cool and tolerable. We’re driving south in a wanderlust mood. On endless roads – mimicking our thoughts – I harp back, to that very first encounter.
I was young with the family on safari in the Masai Mara. After a mystical sunrise viewed from a hot air balloon, which cemented our fondness for the African plains, we enjoyed a bush breakfast near a river filled with grunting hippopotamus. Here, we met the Masai people. I remember being shocked by their diet – entirely consisting of blood and milk. My memory, though fragmentary, still consists of a sea of red and blue, an echo from their dance and their song.
I’m brought back to reality by the crash of metal; our Toyota Hilux is being slowly disassembled, piece by piece; a severe consequence of infuriating corrugated roads. We’re speedily travelling through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, home to the famed Oldupai Gorge and the gargantuan Ngorongoro Crater. The crater itself is vast and alien, an enormous vista – once inhospitable and fierce – now luscious and green, sustaining a unique, flourishing, oasis of wildlife. We briefly gazed in awe then proceeded to head further down into more lowland areas, and into Masai territory.
“They had that attitude that makes brothers, that unexpressed but instant and complete acceptance that you must be Masai where it is you come from… the thing that used to be the most clear distinction of nobility when there was nobility.” Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa.
Our visit, like my first to the Masai, was unforgettable. The colours are just as deep, the cattle just as precious and the way of life nomadic and noble. It felt like time had only changed for myself. We’re shackled by the concept of time standardised by the western man, using it to atone, to forgive, because ultimately, we fear time. There’s no fear here, death is as noble as life. Not that I’m condoning death, but here there’s a perennial youth. You witness an attitude of an unbound life – no shadowy definiteness – time, like a river is “here and now,” it may never make dawn, but it flows, so go fishing.
Three weeks later you’d find us stuck in Africa; a result of those corrugations a few weeks prior shattering our shock absorbers and differential. We drove confidently through rural mud tracks blissfully unaware, then, just off the shore of Lake Malawi, we inevitably got stuck. Our escape took a total of 20 men, some helpful children and a congregation of criticising women who through visual acknowledgments were humorously commenting, along the lines of: “There seems to be an awful lot of noise and not much happening.” In the end it took three hours for our Toyota to emerge triumphant from the ochre ooze.
Later on we visited Matewere Village. I was on the hunt for a grand baobab tree. I found underneath my chosen tree two guys, Loyd and Paul, sitting weaving cane for their business – Mulambe Cane Furniture. Regrettably, throughout Africa we’ve found an abundance of cheap plastic furniture: it’s everywhere. Of course, your choices in life are often a consequence of available funds, but here we found a traditional process, affordable, natural and revered amongst the community, which was a relieving change of pace.
“We must respect the atmosphere which surrounds the human being, and integrate into the portrait the individuals’ habitat – for man, no less than animals, has his habitat.” Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind’s Eye.
Theorising portraiture before and during this journey has been a challenge to say the least. No amount of preparation can ready you for the unexpected – in Africa, always expect the unexpected. One thing has always been clear, I’d never pay for a portrait. Ethically and personally it destroys the integrity of the photograph, and thankfully, most people never ask – Loyd was one of these genuine people.
I gestured to an area, Loyd sat down and relaxed into a natural position. I leant forward – repositioned – pulled focus slightly – light emerged from behind a distant cloud, illuminated the skin on his face – I breathed in – breathed out – fire – no click. I’d run out of film – always learning the hard way. Luckily the scene materialised again after I’d reloaded. There, just as Cartier-Bresson had discovered in Africa at the age of 23, I too truly understood the careful combination between environment and sitter. You have to strive to be faithful to reality, controlling is uninteresting, it diminishes the complexity of the individual – it’s rather insulting.
In the distance, about 1km away, from the dark forest came a hyena’s laugh. To put this into context, we were camping in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe. The hyenas’ cackling and conversations carried swiftly in the night air, igniting an anxiety within me, cutting me. I’d learnt to be on the edge, to be teetering on a precipice, to be torn out of comfort and challenged; to live. The hyenas did more; secretly they made me fear death. Up until then I’d been rising above earthly worries, but there, in that instant, I was reminded of my own mortality; the cackle was a breath of fresh air so crisp and sharp it woke me, from my banal safety net of existence. My body grew warmer, my ears twitched and reacted to any noise, vicious scenarios played through my head like a scratched repeating tape – I felt alive.
Later, that very same evening, I received a childhood wish. I’d always wanted to see a firefly field. I’d seen pictures but the real experience is like anything – unrivalled. The fireflies appeared just after dark. One at first, lightly explored our camp, landing and glowing like a tiny fluorescent bulb. Their numbers began to build. More and more, further and further out into the river marshland by the camp. By 8pm they were glorious, deadly silent, pacing their individual path back and forth.
“It is impossible then not to imagine that a whole crowd of children of six or seven years are running through the dark forest carrying candles, little stocks dipped in a magic fire, joyously jumping up and down, and gambolling as they run, and swinging their small pale torches merrily. The woods are filled with a wild frolicsome life, and it is all perfectly silent.” Karen Blixen, Out of Africa.
That’s what Africa does. It teaches you about life and death in its coeternal state – never one without the other – God and the devil, light and dark, not in battle, but in a perpetual state of being.
Now, leaving Africa, I’m hungry for more; for more smells and starry nights, for places of unpredictability; I’ve caught the rhythm, learnt the game, though there’s so much more waiting to be explored, out there, along the west coast. But sometimes, there’s no reason to search for anything. The mind travels.
“…any number is a limit, and perfection doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there.” Robert Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Reference: Shakespeare, William. Henry IV, Part 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. Print / Hemingway, Ernest. Green Hills Of Africa. New York: Scribner, 1935. Print / Cartier-Bresson, Henri, and Michael L Sand. The Mind’s Eye. New York, N.Y.: Aperture, 1999. Print / Blixen, Karen. Out of Africa. Penguin Classics; New Ed edition 27 Sept, 2001. Print / Bach, Robert. Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Scribner Book Company; Reissue edition, 21 Oct. 2014. Print.