So - under a cut -
Here Be Dragons
A friend once told me that the difference between the two of us was the fact that I built nests, and she was happy to live out of suitcases. Back in 1973, I thought my nest was invincible. I knew where I belonged, cozy in my world; I had the quiet routine of my days, a clutch of ‘best friends’ at school, grandparents with whom my relationship was one of mutual adoration. I was 10 years old... and with very little warning the world I had built was about to come to an explosive end.
Children are rarely given any real say in family decisions. I was not asked what I wanted when my father obtained a short-term contract under the auspices of the United Nations to go and advise the government of Zambia on transportation projects as a Foreign Aid expert. I was simply presented with the arrangements once they had been made. We would be going to Africa. We would be leaving behind everything that I knew, loved and understood for the sake of an unknown wilderness.
I railed against it. Things are never as simple as and;]viewed with hindsight, and perhaps at the time it really was no more than childish pique and a terror of being torn away from that nest I had happily buried myself in. I wasn’t planning to have a certain kind of childhood as opposed to any other time, I was far too young to make that sort of decision. But I did realize, however nebulously, that it was quite possible that nothing I had ever intended would now come to pass. I would be literally transplanted, into a world I knew very little about, and I did not know if I would ‘take.’ Africa was a place shrouded in darkness and stalked by mystery. Whatever my life might have been like if I stayed behind in the quiet Yugoslav town on the shores of the Danube, everything was now up in the air – I could not know what my reaction would be to something I had never experienced. All that I did know was that, in the manner of ancient maps, Africa was a huge blank over whose cartographic expanse pulsed the words, Here Be Dragons.
The dragons turned out to be quite other than I had expected. Sometimes they were entirely invisible, I could only feel their fiery breath; other times they lay implacably across what had looked to be easy roads, forcing me to seek alternative paths through the wilderness. Africa threw up gifts and challenges which would never have come my way if I had remained buried in the article, civilized, tamed, and the well-beaten paths of Europe. I never quite gave my heart to Africa, but the Dark Continent shaped my mind and my soul. I would inevitably become and remain one of Africa’s children.
I did not yet know how insidious this process would be, how it would fight all the deeper, like a snare, if I tried to pull away too hard. How the wisdom and knowledge I would sometimes rather not have would he quietly slipped into my subconscious when I wasn’t paying attention. How I would learn to recognize and know the country and the people I was quietly growing up in and around, and how, in the end, I would accept Africa’s power, and never want to return from it to the place I had been so terribly loath to leave.
It wasn’t simply that I have been given a chance to see an elephant in the wild, or hold a lion cub in my hands, or love and own a dog which would have been unlikely to happen in the cramped one-bedroom flat my family had been living prior to departure -- things that, for most of my contemporaries in Yugoslavia, would remain dreams. Africa’s real gifts would be that I’d slowly begin to comprehend how these things fit together. And at the end, I wouldn’t have to walk away with a mere glimpse of a different tapestry. Africa showed me how one was woven.
I had been in Africa for over two thirds of my life by the time I finally left, and I was in inexorably changed by my life there. I had been malleable clay when I had arrived, and it was Africa that had a hand in shaping me into the form I exist in today. For better or for worse, it had been the African sun which hardened the clay, finished the statue, then Pygmalion like, gave it the kiss of life – and sent it off to slay those dragons of which the empty maps once warned the unwary traveler.
I could not know any of this as my plane lifted off from the soil of the Old Country towards the unknown, and I cried as I watched my world being left behind. But I wept for far more than the fear and loss. Perhaps it was also the instinctive knowledge that something irrevocable had just been done, and that my life would never be the same again.
Follow the Dragons...