Part 02, Chapters 11-20
Part 2, Chapter 11
“In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything,
Desire to have pleasure in nothing,
In order to arrive at possessing everything,
Desire to possess nothing.”
–John of the Cross
Ascent of Mount Carmel
The other Harvard students that David had come to Africa with planned to return to Cambridge at the end of August. Before they left, the project adviser, Tom Stafford, came to Dodoma to see him and to say good-bye.
It was the first time Tom had visited that part of the country, and he seemed to David to be a little shocked by it. The semi-arid landscape with its subtle, haunting colors did not seem to Tom to be a place of unspoiled peace or starkly pure beauty. It seemed to him to be merely a wilderness, forlorn and desolate, where men and women wandered like lost souls across bleak vistas of scrub and withering trees.
He and David hiked up to the top of a small mountain at the southern edge of Dodoma. In the approaching evening the lights were just starting to come on in the town below, while all around it the darkness gathered. We might have been visitors on the moon, observing a tiny colony of humans in the far distance. To David the town was an emblem of hope, a sign of the indomitability of the human spirit. To Tom it was more like a ship of fools, struggling hopelessly against the lethal terrors of the vast spaces that reached out to the horizon and beyond.
“Won’t you be lonely here?” Tom asked him after they had looked at the scene in silence for a time, each of them absorbed in his own utterly different thoughts.
David was so surprised at the question that at first he thought Tom was joking.
“What do you mean?” David said with a laugh.
Tom’s expression remained serious. “But there’s no one else here. You’ll be all alone for a year.”
David smiled. “No one else here? The town is full of people; the whole province is full of people.”
“But do you have much in common with many of them?”
“Well, I think I have about as much in common with these people as I did with anyone at Harvard.”
Tom said nothing, and David began to feel a little exasperated. “Look, Tom, “he said quietly, “don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right here. I can take care of myself.”
Tom still said nothing.
“Don’t you think we just see this place in different ways?” David went on. You see loneliness and bleakness, I see tranquility — and a kind of beauty, too. I’ve felt that way ever since I arrived.”
“That’s probably true,” I said, looking out over the lights of the town below us, “I mean, about seeing it in different ways, but which of us is right?”
“I think what matters,” David told him, “is that the way I see it is right for me.” He zipped up his jacket against the cool night air. “And I don’t think my outlook will change.”
Tom looked at him thoughtfully. “And if it does change?”
David returned his look. “If my outlook changes, I can go back to the States whenever I want to.”
Tom seemed satisfied with that.
After the other Harvard students left, David did feel a certain loneliness, but he never really had been very close to any of them, even the ones he’d lived with. They’d seemed to David to occupy a world of their own, living apart from the Africa that surrounded them. A few days after their departure, David hardly noticed their absence. Besides, he was busy with other things: trying to organize his work and make all of the arrangements for the first of the many weekly safaris he would have to make, alone with an African driver, messenger, and cook.
He had to move into a smaller flat, one-half of what he thought the British called a semi-detached house, on a long, quiet street not far from the provincial commissioner’s home. The silence that was so much a part of East Africa lay all around, giving the whole quarter the kind of peace that always seemed full of possibilities to David, the kind of peace he often thought must have always existed at the very edge of a frontier.
That particular frontier in Africa was not being maintained in quite the way its original builders intended — the whole colonial period was ending, and Tanganyika would soon be an independent country. However, Dodoma in those days represented for David one of the places where our civilization was — for better or for worse — pressing into areas where it had never before been known. In this way, it seemed to David, it was continuing a process that had been going on practically since the beginning of recorded time.
During the day, the hot, blue sky seemed to smile down on David’s small house. In the clear night, the stars above it carried on their mysterious conversations. Around it the tall, green desert shrubbery stood guard, protecting it on every side. In the back there was a small room and a kitchen where his houseboy lived and worked — for whatever David’s ideals may have been, the realities of everyday life in Africa made it impossible to survive either in the towns or in the bush without someone to chop the firewood, bring the water, cook the food, wash the clothes, go to the market, look after the safari gear, set up camp, and do all of the other things that needed to be done to maintain even a relatively austere lifestyle. If David had had to do all of those things himself, without a servant — he argued with his conscience — there would be no time to do anything else.
The flat was furnished with the boxy, indestructible, but not unlovely colonial furniture that the Public Works Department supplied. There was a couch and chairs, a carpet, and shelves of Penguin books he’d ordered from the Anglican book shop near Dodoma’s tiny, mosque-shaped cathedral. In his bedroom a billowing white mosquito net was draped over a frame built up from the bed, providing a sense a security against all of the insects and other creatures that came out in the night, and which in some odd way added to his sense of Africa’s adventurous beauty.
It was a very small place, but years later he would think he was more content there than he had ever been anywhere. From time to time, especially at the beginning, one of the members of the British community would drop by to see how he was getting on. Always friendly and cheerful, they treated him like a new member of the family — this strange American who had received a temporary, but official, appointment to the British Colonial Service, an institution that was to survive in Tanganyika for only three more months.
When they made these visits, it must have been obvious to them that David was quite happy to be at home there alone, lost in one of the novels he’d ordered from Penguin, escaping again into still another world, or least — this might be fairer to say — visiting another world in books.
Part 2, Chapter 12
“He who is alone
often lives to find favor,…
though he has long
had to stir
with his arms
the frost-cold sea….”
–Anonymous, A.D. 975
As soon as David’s appointment as a temporary colonial civil servant took effect at the beginning of September, just after the other Americans had left, he was expected to go out on safari immediately. Probably that expectation amounted to a kind of test. If he hadn’t passed it, and if it had become clear that he couldn’t carry out the work on those safaris successfully, it is very likely he would have been quickly and unceremoniously sent back to the United States.
To prepare for the first safari, he had to compose, in Swahili, a letter to all the chiefs and headmen in the two-hundred square mile area he was responsible for. He had to let them know his schedule, and he had to tell them when and where they were expected to bring their people to receive the coupons that could be exchanged for food.
He worked on the letter and on other matters for one long day at his desk in the district headquarters. The office was a low, trim set of buildings where a light breeze sometimes fluttered the curtains and the heat rose in shimmering waves outside. The African messengers moved about on urgent errands in their red fezzes and khaki uniforms. Here too there was a sense of quiet, only occasionally broken by one of the younger district officers raising his voice at some poor African. The man would be standing in front of him, leaning on his spear, and listening with mild wonder to the flights of fluent Swahili the Englishman was sending out in a swirl around him. The African probably understood little of what was actually being said, since Swahili was not his native language. One of the African messengers, though, translated loudly into Kigogo, the local tribal language, at the same time that he did a remarkably accurate impersonation of the Englishman who was speaking.
The weekend before the first safari, David gave his cook, Simon, a list of everything that would be needed in the bust. While Simon was making those preparations, David was checking all of the registration procedures and setting aside a supply of the record books and food coupons he would need.
On Monday morning, almost exactly on schedule, the government Landrover appeared in front of David’s house, with a driver named Shabani at the wheel. He was a tall, thin Somali wearing the usual khaki uniform and red fez. He was a cheerful man, extremely helpful, patient, and hard-working.
He was also a devout Moslem, and in those innocent days, his religion seemed nothing more than a quaint, rather charming habit he had acquired. David had never known any Moslems in the United States, and Shabani was the first Moslem that David had ever lived in close proximity with.
David would watch with great respect whenever Shabani took out his prayer rug, faced Mecca, knelt, bowed, and prayed at the required times each day. David believed that it was perhaps this rather exotic habit that gave Shabani, in difficult situations, the strength and endurance that David sometimes found astonishing. Shabani could drive for hours across the hot, dusty countryside or through storm and flood conditions without ever becoming irritable or impatient, without even appearing to be very tired. David, on the other hand, often felt exhausted simply riding in the car as a passenger, much less having to drive the vehicle, in the dust and heat and over roads that were sometimes all but impassable.
The government messenger who always accompanied them was called Mazengo. He was short, slightly plump, intelligent, and very resourceful — by far the most experienced messenger in the district office, and perhaps that was the reason he was assigned to David. It was perhaps also the reason that at the beginning, David sometimes had the feeling that the true relationship was the reverse — that it was he who’d been assigned to Mazengo.
The man could handle huge, chaotic crowds of people, and organize them into orderly distribution groups almost by the sheer force of his personality. He was clever and responsible and always of great help in situations in the bush that were often confusing and difficult for David in the beginning. David’s Swahili was so very poor at first, and everything in the bush had to be done in Swahili. In fact, when he was on safari, David would spend days on end in the bush without ever coming across a single person who spoke English, or ever speaking a word of English himself. It was a part of his nature that made him think such a thing was truly wonderful.
Mazengo, Shabani, and Simon, however, were used to dealing with Europeans who spoke the kind of pidgin Swahili David had to use in the beginning. David could not have survived without those three men. The work that Mazengo and Shabani had already done for several months with the British district officers and their familiarity with the procedures of the famine relief program made David feel his presence was completely unnecessary at the beginning. Perhaps in a sense it was, except that in those days, the work that Mazengo and Shabani did would have had no legitimacy in the eyes of the Africans in the bush without the presence of “Bwana Shauri,” the white district officer that David now was.
On that Monday morning of that very first safari on his own, David was worried and apprehensive. Even though there was really little that could go wrong, he managed to find a great deal he could feel concerned about. Shabani and Mazengo and Simon were competent and experienced, but he was the one who was ultimately responsible for everything. He was worried, for example, about the Swahili letters he had sent out, letters he had composed with so much difficulty. Had they been received by the chiefs and headmen they were addressed to? Would the people show up at the right time and in the right place? Had he planned the week’s schedule well, and would he have enough time to travel to all the areas he planned to visit and complete the distribution to everyone who did show up?
The rudimentary state of his Swahili also worried him. How could he deal with all of the problems he was bound to encounter? Would he be able to communicate at all with the people in the bush? Would he even really be able to communicate effectively with Shabani and Mazengo? He tried not to think of the ways he would be alone that week — linguistically, culturally, racially. He tried not to think about the fact that in the eyes of the Africans around him he was not unlike an alien visiting from another planet, an alien who represented a dominant, advanced, and admired civilization, but an alien nevertheless.
He also worried about small details he considered crucial — the supplies, for example, that they were bringing with them. Were there enough coupon books, or would they run out in the middle of the distribution? Did they have enough registration books to hold all of the names and other information required of the people who were applying for relief? Would he be able to see to it that the meetings in each designated area were organized efficiently, the way he’d seen the other district officers organize theirs?
Because of that passionate conscientiousness that makes a young man feel he absolutely must do a flawless job, David’s worries were almost endless: would the chiefs and headmen have enough respect for someone as young as he was? Would they tell him if any relief applicants were lying about the number of family members they had? Would they let him know if any applicant was trying to deceive the government about the amount of food he had stored away or the number of cattle he possessed?
Would the headmen — together with Mazengo — really be able to organize everyone into groups and make them stand in line? Or would the entire meeting — in spite of all David’s efforts — dissolve into a mass of milling confusion, with hundreds of people pushing and shoving, out of control, preventing him and the others from doing the work they had come to do?
In the larger scheme of things — where nations rise or fall, or where all of humankind tries to survive without destroying itself — David’s concerns were certainly not very important. Many who read this — if anyone at all reads it — will laugh at him for taking his worries so seriously. He knew many of his contemporaries would have ridiculed him for being so concerned about such minor matters. Many would have said — and probably would still say — that he simply was not very bright, that he had no sense of what his priorities should be. And in a larger sense that may have been true. Otherwise, he would have gone back to Harvard and occupied himself with more important matters: European history, perhaps, or English literature.
Many more people would probably have said — and in fact many did say, if not at that time, then certainly later, that not only did David have no real intelligence, he had no clear-headed sensitivity to the world and to the people around him. He was neurotic.
After all, what else could explain the feeling of being continually haunted by the beauty of the land, by the sense of exhilaration he felt whenever he looked at it? Even in the dry season, the countryside was beautiful, but later, when the rains came, the vast plateau of dry grass and scrub would be transformed into a paradise of muted color, with long, rolling vistas of lush grassland and wildflowers. Even the stumpy, disorganized-looking baobab trees would turn green and seem to burst with heavy foliage. Everywhere in the bush, the cool shade of the clumps of trees, the thickets, and the heavy undergrowth would look inviting and mysterious.
If he was stupid, then in his stupidity and naiveté, this new world was boundless and unexplored, innocent and unspoiled. He brought to it all the freshness and enthusiasm of his own youth, and the land seemed to respond like a friend and gave these things back to him.
Once when he was on safari after the long rains had started, they were driving along a deserted track in the bush. The morning was sunny, but the ground was still wet and moist from a downpour the night before. Suddenly they came to a stretch of road that was covered for hundreds of yards with a soft, living, fluttering carpet of thousands upon thousands of small white butterflies. The tiny insects flew up, as the Landrover approached, like snow driven by the wind. They brushed against the vehicle and swirled around it like a living winter storm that had struck in the middle of summer.
That moment became somehow fixed in David’s mind. It was inexplicable and beautiful; it was — to use a word he and others applied to anything extraordinary — so fine. He thought that never in his life had he seen anything that contained such splendor.
That small event was the kind of thing he attached so much importance to then, simply because it was so incomparably lovely in his eyes.
He’d read somewhere that the ancient Greek word for “butterfly” was also used by the Greeks to mean “soul,” and perhaps because of that fact he associated those butterflies with a sudden, stupendous increase of life, an increase that was also taking place in him, although he barely understood that then.
The whirling dance of countless ten thousands of small, white butterflies represented the new life he’d found in Africa, even there, at that moment, on that twisting road, after the rains had come, in an unknown, unmarked place on the vast continent, a place that was of importance to no one else.
Part 2, Chapter 13
“When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by,
When the air does laugh with our merry wit
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it ….”
Laughing Song from Songs of Innocence and Experience
Later, when he was more cynical, he was sometimes tempted to think that if there really was some new life unfolding within him then in Africa, it was no more substantial than a butterfly’s existence. He realized, though, that life always appears to be an insubstantial thing — the stuff of dreams, even though it may ultimately prove to be one of the most powerful and durable forces in the universe.
Besides, if the event of the butterflies represented some new burst of psychological growth in the mind of the young man David was, if it was some sudden unfolding of his spirit on a purely natural level, it may at the same time have meant something more significant. It may also have been a sign — or perhaps only the promise of a sign — that something even deeper within him would also one day awaken, or at least could awaken. In other words, David would one day think that the event of the butterflies may have been a suggestion — and one he could not really comprehend then — that there is in everyone the hunger and the potential for a greater awareness of — for want of a better word — God.
Others of course may laugh at that, but when David was a boy, in his idealism, he longed for what he had been told of God, for some kind of knowledge of God, but only in an almost childish way, of course, as if it were something to be “experienced.” He could not understand then that God is not an “experience.” God, he would later come to believe, is the love expressed in helping others, even in suffering for them, especially when we face difficulties that have to be overcome with all the strength that is in us.
If the butterflies that day represented for him a promise of real joy, he was too young to believe what he would later believe: that ultimately that joy can only be what the saints have found in the cross. It is that “perfect joy,” David thought to himself, that made St. Francis long for the cross, that makes every saint run to meet the cross with eagerness and anticipation and enormous love.
It is the kind of joy, though, that David never really had the courage to even try to pursue.
The natural sense of wonder David felt that day — seeing those massed wings beating against one another like the petals of a thousand living flowers thrown up into the air — was almost too intense. It was only one aspect of things he was experiencing so deeply that he could not talk about them with anyone.
Later, at Harvard, he would try to talk about them, or least hint at them, but he would again be told that such ideas were quite characteristic of an immature young man. It was not at all unusual, other people said to him, for someone of his age and background to be entranced in a simple-minded way by the beauty of a much too ordinary event. That kind of absorption — and self-absorption — he was told, was actually a rather morbid way of preventing himself from remaining in contact with the hard, practical realities of everyday living. Africa, he was told, had only encouraged these tendencies in him. All those hours — stretching out into months — that he spent alone — or at least out of touch with civilization — in the bush simply did not contribute much to his balance and stability. On the contrary, they were even harmful in a way. Of course he was able to go on functioning satisfactorily, people told him, as long as he was in Africa, but as soon as he returned to Harvard, his inability to accept the real world, the world as it really is, presented serious difficulties.
There came a time when he supposed that the people who told him such things were right in a way. After all, it was certainly true that everything he did in Africa enabled him to feel stronger and more self-confident. Africa did provide him with the self-esteem that his mother and stepfather felt they had had to undermine and try to destroy. Like any young person in the right environment, he did undergo many changes that were all to the good, at least in the short run. But as he grew more sure of himself and more mature in Africa, he also became less able to live comfortably in any environment other than Africa, in an environment — such as the one he knew with his mother and step-father in the United States — that encouraged feelings of dependency, lack of self-esteem, and extreme self-doubt.
David perhaps deserves to be faulted for his obvious inability to successfully make the transition from one environment to another. On the other hand, how many people are there in this world who can establish a healthy sense of themselves in one environment, and then move easily and successfully into one that is radically different, one that is as threatening and dangerous as the environment that David’s mother and step-father were spinning all around him, like two enormous spiders carefully constructing a common web, cunningly designed to catch and hold their prey?
Part 2, Chapter 14
“I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air….”
–Gerard Manley Hopkins
David really thought that as long as he was in Tanganyika, all his problems were solved. Life would present no more serious difficulties, because the more accustomed he became to the work he was doing, the more it seemed that he could do anything.
After a few months of going out on safari, he’d learned to work quite well in the territory — about two hundred square miles — that had been assigned to him. He knew exactly how to get around and how to do the job he was supposed to do; he knew exactly what to say to the Africans he met and how to behave toward them. Instead of apprehension, he now felt a sense of exhilaration as they drove up to the small village squares where registration and distribution took place.
When they arrived at one of these meeting areas, there were always hundreds of people gathered there, moving about, talking and shouting to one another. They were all dressed in the traditional African style: the men had a kind of rust-colored toga draped over one shoulder, and almost all of them carried a spear. The women had a length of cloth wrapped around their waist or around the upper part of their body, and they usually carried infants on their backs. Some of the more affluent men wore a faded jacket, a pair of shorts, and sometimes sandals, the soles of which were short sections cut from automobile tires.
The children would come running up to the Landrover and examine it curiously and shyly. The air was filled with dust and noise and the smells of human beings and animals. And all around them, always, as far as the eye could see, were the thorn trees and the brush and the rolling hills of Tanganyika’s vast central plateau, while the sky overhead was often almost completely cloudless during the dry season.
Whenever they arrived at a village or some other distribution point, David and Mazengo would start working right away, while Shabani and Simon drove off to set up camp in one of the simple “rest houses” built for government officials in the bush. These were simple, one-room structures made of sturdy, unbaked brick covered with a layer of whitewashed plaster. The roofs were of corrugated sheet metal. There was no running water, except the kind that could sometimes be found in a nearby stream. The toilet was located some distance away from the rest house and consisted of a pit dug in the ground outside, with a wooden platform over it, and, to provide some privacy, a kind of little thatched hut over that. Such structures were almost tolerable in the daytime, but they were foul, dark, and somehow frightening in the middle of the night, because there was no way of knowing what might be crawling around in them.
The rest house itself was relatively comfortable, more comfortable, anyway, it seemed to David, than a canvas tent would have been. When he returned from work in the evening, he’d find that Simon had swept out the house and set up the camp bed and the mosquito net. There would be a table laid for supper and a pressure lamp hissing out its eerie light.
The usual routine was that right after their arrival, as Simon was starting his work, and Shabani was resting after the usually grueling drive, David and Mazengo made their way through the crowd to a table set up under the metal roof of an open “baraza” or meeting place. Mazengo would bring up the registration and coupon books and begin organizing the crowd into groups, while David greeted the assembled local officials, usually a chief and his headmen and made small talk with them. He was, he would think sardonically to himself in later life, the very model of a modern colonial official.
Even then, though, David might have admitted to himself that he may in fact really not have acted very differently from the British colonial officers who were working in Africa then. He might also have admitted later that there were moments when he almost wondered if that was such a bad thing. And in the decades of war and disorder and disease and suffering that followed the time David spent in Africa, there were also times when he wondered if colonialism itself had really been such an unmitigated evil.
European civilization may be very imperfect, he thought to himself later, but it did bring certain advantages that most Africans have always wanted to enjoy. In those days, when he was first in Africa, a form of European civilization extended from the southern cape nearly all the way up to Egypt and the Sudan. When all that disappeared, there were moments when, in spite of himself, he was almost tempted to wonder if the squalor, anarchy, injustice, tyranny, and oppression that afterwards flourished to one degree or another in nearly every African country really represented a step forward out of the colonial past. Then he would tell himself that such things of course existed under colonialism too, but he could never convince himself that they flourished quite as unrestrainedly as they did in the following decades.
David would later tell himself that when the whole of western civilization was taken into account — whatever criticism could be leveled at it — it did seem to represent a kind of inexorable force, even a force for good. It might be checked occasionally, and forced to retreat, but in the long history of human kind nothing has ever stopped it completely. What gave David hope was the thought that probably nothing ever would stop it, even in Africa.
For the most part, he was happily ignorant of such considerations when he was in Africa that first time. He might have sometimes behaved like a young colonial, he did share the thinking of like-minded liberals then, and he was glad then that the colonial system was almost dead. Like many idealists of the time, he was certain that the end of that system would bring a new golden age to Africa.
It never occurred to him then that he might one day be quite disappointed in Africa.
Part 2, Chapter 15
“Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard
Meotodes meahte and his modgeþanc
weorc Wuldor-Fæder swa he wundra gehwæs
ece Drihten or sonstealde
He ærest sceop ielda bearnum
heofon to hrofe halig Scyppend….”
–Cædmon, circa A.D. 680
“Now we should praise the guardian of heaven’s kingdom,
the might of the creator and the intentions of his spirit,
the work of the father of glory, the source of wonder to all,
eternal Lord, who made the beginning.
He first created for the sons of men
heaven as a roof, holy creator….”
–Caedmon, circa A.D. 680
On safari, David used to exchange greetings with the local chiefs whenever he entered another village. This exchange could sometimes develop into a fairly elaborate social interaction. One chief in particular used to make quite a ceremony of their arrival. He was a huge man — by the look of him no one would have suspected there was famine in the country. He seemed to be always smiling and always cheerful. He used to dress in an unusual assortment of European clothes that no doubt seemed fashionable and elegant to him. He always greeted David with great affection and always saw to it that the young American was given a present: at least a live chicken, sometimes even a goat or a sheep. These were always slaughtered later by Shabani, the only Moslem among them, whose religion required him to kill the animals in the traditional way, so that they would be ritually clean, and fit for him to eat.
Whatever village David was in, though, these traditional greetings between the chief and him were important, at least in the local scheme of things. In the eyes of the Africans, a district officer was something of a celebrity, a representative of that mysterious European authority that governed their lives. To some he might have seemed almost like a visitor from an advanced civilization in another galaxy, if it had been clear to them exactly what a galaxy was.
After David had greeted the chief, the elders and headmen would come forward to welcome him: old men who, before he could stop them, would occasionally even kneel down and try to kiss his hand. A few months later, after he had become more fluent in Swahili, people used to come up and ask him to settle disputes between them. District officers in the past had also acted as local magistrates who were empowered to decide minor legal questions like the failure to pay a bride price or the theft of a few goats or heads of cattle.
Once these preliminaries were over, their real work began. He sat at a table in the crowded open meeting hall, surrounded by the heat, the smells, and the sounds of Africa. Years later, it would seem very odd to think of those places, because they were probably in ruins by then: the metal roof torn away, the mud-brick pillars crumbling, the wind blowing forlornly across the cracked and broken concrete floor. Everything now in those places must be so different from what it was when he was last there, with the noisy crowd pushing and shoving, talking to one another, laughing at what was even for them, the strangeness of it all.
At the beginning of the proceedings, Mazengo would be shouting and coercing and, through the sheer force of his will, somehow managing to make everyone quiet. Then the registration process began.
As each person came forward to have his or her family name written down, together with the number of dependents in the household, either the headman or the village chief used to stand alongside the applicant to verify or correct the information. If everything was in order, David wrote down the names, and Mazengo handed out the coupons that could be exchanged for food.
If people had questions, he would answer them as best he could in Swahili. In the first few months of going on safari alone, it was nearly impossible for David to say anything at all in the language. As time passed, though, he found he could speak more easily, and eventually was even able to give short speeches in Swahili, whenever he had to. Mazengo had to translate everything he said into the local tribal language, which was all most of the people understood. Only those among them who had had some schooling were able to speak Swahili.
As David worked, writing down the necessary information, he used to watch the people step forward with their smiling, cheerful faces, so full of life and humanity, and so different from the faces he remembered in the American cities he had lived in.
Although he was quite close to those people, in terms of the physical distance between them, he sometimes thought about the distance in time that seemed to separate him from them: thousands of years of western civilization, and all it had produced. The Africans standing in front of him, he thought, could no more comprehend his thoughts as he looked at them, than he could understand the mysterious workings of their lives.
David believed he could see, though, that these people were happier than most of the people he had known in America, in spite of the poverty and squalor in which they had to live. In later years, he would sometimes think that that happiness was probably gone, along with the whole structure of colonialism, and that what had replaced it was the same as what replaced colonialism in most of Africa: bleakness, decay, and the chill rush of the often monstrous spirit of the third millennium, shrieking through the ruins of the past. Still, he thought, it might be that even that spirit would ultimately have a beneficial effect. At some point in the distant future, David believed, people may be forced to look beyond all of their illusions, material and religious, and find the real happiness they are all looking for, the one philosophers have spoken of since at least the beginning of recorded time. Fecisti nos ad te, he thought.
However, he really didn’t consider much of all that in Africa then, because as long as he actually was in Africa, he didn’t see the terrible contrasts between life in Africa and in what is called the developed world. He had somehow managed to forget what that life was like.
It was only the shock of his return to Europe and America that later reawakened his awareness. Of course many will say that his life in Africa was full of illusions and that he was living a fantasy there as much as he did anywhere else. He would probably have responded, though, that he still believed life in Africa — at least during the period when he was there — contained far fewer illusions than the life most people in America and Europe led.
In the bush, after the long working day filled with problems that seemed difficult and important to him then, problems that he took great satisfaction in being able to solve — after eight, ten, or sometimes twelve hours of labor, he continued to feel he was living through a great adventure. As he watched those gentle people come forward — people who were gentle in every sense, even to the point of indeed exhibiting a certain nobility — as he looked at the inexhaustible variety of their faces, he was struck by their beauty and their squalor. At such moments, it seemed to him that they were like lovely half-formed creatures emerging from primordial matter.
At that time, though, he never asked himself what they might be emerging into.
He saw, among other things, the infants that the women carried on their backs, infants that had flies clustering at the corners of their innocent eyes and feeding on the open sores on their bodies. This was an aspect of Africa that was not apparent to him in the first, almost overwhelming confrontation with the beauty of the landscape.
Even that, he thought to himself, was a part of the adventure that Africa and the people before him had become.
Those people seemed sometimes to come toward him in the baraza in a rushing, squalid, but smiling and happy flood of human beings, often in the hundreds, sometimes in the thousands. And each day the flood came on and on until they were all exhausted.
Nevertheless, in the evening and at night, after the reality of the Africans’ strange combination of wretchedness and nobility, after the reality of his own exhaustion and high spirits, other images filled his mind, images of beauty, images that filled him with exhilaration, images that people in America would say were either irrelevant or pure fantasy.
He used to wonder, though, if everything were a fantasy in this sometimes inhuman age simply because it exhilarated the mind and spirit. He asked himself if a feeling of awe, for example, in the presence of something beautiful was always an illusion. He wondered if everyone in this century really had been reduced to thinking only ugliness was real. He asked himself if, from now on, the perception of something beautiful would always be considered a weakness or a sign of stupidity.
He would sometimes have the impression that that’s what people at Harvard thought.
What was it he saw at night, at three thousand feet above sea level on the plateau of East Africa? What was it that was so beautiful it changed his life forever? What was it that he had to lose when he returned to America, and what was that loss that made his life so miserable away from Africa?
He used to step outside of the rest house in the bush, late at night, and look up at a sky that could not be seen from Europe and America, not simply because they were north of the equator, but because the blazing lights of cities there made the nighttime sky invisible.
Of all the things David’s mind and imagination played on in that vast continent of Africa, it was the nighttime sky that he would perhaps remember more than anything else in the long years — the bleak years — that were to follow. Wherever he would wander in the world — from the mountains of Iran to the Polar ice cap to a Carthusian hermitage in the depths of winter in the south of France — he would always look up at the sky at night and think, yes, the beauty of the stars almost shatters the mind.
Even that, however, was not what he saw then, when he was so young, in the heavens over Africa. There, high up on the immense plateau, on the southern half of the globe, he saw a mass of stars he had never seen in the northern hemisphere, in the light-filled nights of North America’s towns and cities. He felt that in Africa, then, at the moment he was there, the heavens seemed almost to be on fire at night, with every glory and mystery that the stars had ever possessed since the beginning of time itself.
He felt — and he knew this really would sound incredible or simply crazy at Harvard — that they really were — in some incomprehensible way — speaking to one another. He somehow felt he could almost hear — almost understand — the splendor of what each was communicating to the other. For David, it was a kind of music perhaps, a sort of poetry that seemed — and our age made him ashamed to use the word — sublime.
And if such a word is ridiculous, even more absurd was the idea he had that the stars appeared at times almost to — for want of a better word — smile. They smiled as though they were filled with a secret and a promise. They smiled with what for him was a warmth and friendliness he had never known in that place he had been taught to think of as home.
Of course all that is laughable, ideas like that are the product of an overheated adolescent imagination, or worse, as Harvard psychiatrists would later think. Sometime in Africa, though, David was tempted to go beyond even those ideas. He was sometimes tempted to believe — almost — that if the stars there had any consciousness at all, they would recognize him as one of their own. At moments like that he knew with absolute clarity that one day he would share in that conversation they were having with one another across the immensities of space. He knew that somehow, in some way, at some future time, he too would speak and sing as one of them.
When he looked at them, he did not feel lonely anymore.
Of course such things can only be evidence of pathology. People felt sorry for David because he thought such things. They regretted they could not moderate his thinking. If he spoke about such things, people would often respond with either silence or sarcasm.
Part 2, Chapter 16
“Wie sie aber so saßen, wurden, obgleich doch kein Sonnenaufgang noch -untergang war, der sich in ihren Gesichtern hätte malen können, diese Gesichter so rot wie die gewundenen Stämme der Bäume in ihrem Rücken, rot wie die Wüste, dunkelrot wie der Stern am Himmel, und ihre Augen schienen Blut verspritzen zu wollen. Er trat zurück. Da erscholl ein dröhnendes Röhren, das Zwillings-Stiergebrüll, das die Eingeweide erschütterte, und mit langgezogenem Schrei wie aus einer gequälten Kehle, einem verzweifelt frohlockenden Ahhh der Wut, des Hasses und der Erlösung, sprangen sie auf…in wildgenauer Gleichzeitigkeit und stürzten sich auf ihn“.
Joseph und seine Brüder
“Even though there was no light from a sunrise or sunset that could have altered their complexion, their faces became red as they sat there, red as the wounded trunks of the trees behind them, red as the desert, dark red as the star in the heavens above them. Their eyes seemed about to start spurting blood as he stepped back. Then a threatening roar sounded in the air, the bellowing of twin steers — his twin brothers — that shook him to the very core. With a long drawn-out cry, like the noise of a throat being strangled, and with an exultant “ahhh” born of despairing rage and hate and release, they jumped up…in a kind of feral simultaneity and hurled themselves at him.”
Joseph und seine Brüder
One day David heard that the first Peace Corps volunteers were due to arrive in Dodoma in November. At first he worried about meeting them. He expected them to be young American supermen — able, competent, fluent in Swahili, prepared for great accomplishments.
When they finally arrived, though, they did not — to his surprise — seem at all unusual. Of course they did possess some of the qualities he expected, to one degree or another, but if they seemed at times mature and self-confident, there were also other times when there was a sense of uneasiness and self-doubt that showed on their faces.
David’s months in the bush had to some extent formed in him some of the qualities he expected to find in these first Peace Corps volunteers, and it was probably for that reason that they did not seem particularly unusual. He too had become more mature and resourceful and stronger than before. Perhaps the work he’d had to do and the difficulties he’d been forced to overcome had left their mark on him. And of course it’s possible that he’d also been marked by everything he was able to see in the faces of the Africans, and in the blue, gold, and green colors of the immense continent, and in that laughably sublime sky he saw at night.
The arrival of the Peace Corps in Dodoma also had the perhaps odd effect of turning his thinking back to the real bane of his existence, turning it to the thought that so often preoccupied him then, no matter how far away he was from its source, no matter how much he tried to defend himself against it: the thought of his mother and stepfather.
At the same time, though, there was a blind spot in his thinking, a kind of obliviousness. Whatever good or useful or perhaps even admirable qualities he may have acquired were at least partly hidden even from himself, as they often are in certain kinds of young men, and that lack of self-knowledge was a great weakness. It made him oblivious to danger.
He was unaware that the qualities he possessed can sometimes awaken in other people a kind of raging destructiveness, a need and a lust to crush the young man who possesses them.
In his case it was in his mother and stepfather that this desire was awakened, this unstoppable drive to thwart anything mature, anything self-reliant, anything that indicated that a sense of responsibility was growing in him. Their sad natures were made in such a way that they seemed possessed by a kind of biological, instinctive craving to have him remain dependent on them, and weak.
This was the danger he was still unaware of, not matter how much the thought of his mother and stepfather may sometimes have preoccupied him.
Perhaps, though, he should not have blamed his stepfather too much. The man was no match for the cunning of his unhappy mother. She was able to make him do or think almost anything she wanted. It would have taken a stronger man than he was not to yield to the pressure she put on him to act toward David in the way she wanted. Of course, if David’s stepfather had possessed that kind of strength, he would never have married David’s mother in the first place, or she would never have married him.
David much later came to see that his sad mother was possessed by a kind of glowering, miserable force, and eventually she made his stepfather share in that possession. That force caused both of them to be so consumed by the fear of old age and death that they would stop at nothing — no tactic of deceit or manipulation could be overlooked — in order to try to arrest any growth or maturity in David. And it was really child’s play for his mother to enlist his stepfather’s support in these efforts. He was doomed from the start to think like her, so the poor man can hardly be blamed for his contribution to her baleful activities.
Odd as it may be, David’s mother and stepfather seemed somehow really to think that if David never grew up, then he would never grow old, and neither would they. If he remained weak, they would remain strong.
Whatever illusions David might be accused of having, it seems clear that older people who suffer from the kind of thinking his poor mother and stepfather were subject to are victims of many more illusions than the young.
David would not become completely aware of such things for a long time, and perhaps it was better so. There is so little a young man can do to protect himself in those circumstances, except perhaps — if he believes in God — to pray. There is certainly nothing he can do to change the thinking and behavior of older people in such a situation.
Such things may in reality be symptomatic of an entire culture in a period of decline.
Part 2, Chapter 17
“O pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!
One Saturday morning, a few days after the arrival of the first Peace Corps volunteers, David walked over to their new quarters to meet them. In fact, he had no choice but to walk over there since he couldn’t call them. Top civil servants were the only people in Dodoma who had a telephone in those days.
The house the Peace Corps guys were moving into was still in the process of being organized. It was a confusion of trunks, packing crates, and furniture supplied by the colonial Public Works Department. There were three volunteers, all of them a few years older than he was: Nelson, a young Japanese-American from San Francisco; Julian, a tall, thin Harvard graduate; and an electronics engineer from Washington state named Jack McHale.
Jack dominated the group. Nelson was perhaps more thoughtful, and Julian probably more educated — perhaps even more intelligent — but it was Jack who had the most influence, who dominated us all not through force or manipulation, but through sheer good will, energy, kindness, and a kind of aura that practically no one could resist, or even felt like resisting.
Everyone wanted to be Jack’s friend. He treated each of us as if we had an importance we’d never been aware of, and probably in his eyes each of us was that important. He also had that kind of irreverent, incisive, and humorous sense of the absurd that David sometimes thought was unique to educated Americans, certainly of that generation.
Jack of course wanted to be everybody’s friend, but the effect Jack had on David was to make him feel startled and at the same time pleased that someone who seemed to David so remarkable was also interested in being his friend. David almost had the feeling that he had, by chance, just found an older brother who had disappeared and been lost for a long time.
Jack did take an interest in David then, more perhaps than in the others, and why that should be was incomprehensible to David, for he was still such an adolescent, and painfully aware of his flaws. Certainly it’s also true that David found it hard to understand sometimes, after his mother and stepfather had gotten through with him, that he really did make a favorable impression on other people, on people like Jack.
The day David met the Peace Corps volunteers, he was sitting around talking to two of them. Jack was in some other part of the house. When he did finally join the others, something odd seemed to happen, as if something in the atmosphere subtly altered when he entered the room. Up to that point we had simply been three people talking, but Jack’s presence seemed to transform everything, almost to make the world itself brighter, more purposeful, more alive. Nearly the first thing he did — this was typical of him — was to take everyone into the kitchen and make breakfast for them. Among the supplies the Peace Corps had furnished were all the ingredients for American-style blueberry pancakes — a delicacy as rare as lobster thermidor in the center of Tanganyika at that time.
The conversation over breakfast with this group was something David simply could not remember ever having experienced before. He felt a new kind of confidence during the entire exchange. No one ignored him the way his mother and stepfather always had.
Amazingly enough to David, the others were interested in what he’d done and seen and learned in his four months in the country. He was the veteran among them, and the three of them — Nelson, Julian, and Jack — guys he’d expected to admire and look up to, actually seemed to admire and look up to him. They treated him as if he were as competent, confident, and knowledgeable as he’d always wanted to be. He didn’t feel shy or ill at ease or worried because he might in some way do or say something that was wrong or different or awkward. For the first time in his life, as a foreigner in a foreign country — and far more than when he was with the British — he felt he could at last be the kind of person he’d never been able to be at home.
That perhaps is one of the most important reasons why he would go on to live more than a third of his life outside the United States, and why he would in the end, perhaps, remain abroad for good.
What he really found so unforgettable about Africa, what may have repeatedly driven him away from his own country for so many years was simply this: with those three other Americans in Dodoma so long ago, he learned, as he never had before, that it was overseas, not in America, that he could feel himself maturing and becoming an adult; it was overseas, not in America, that he felt he fitted in; it was overseas that he found his place in the world, a place were people treated him in a way that was comprehensible to him; it was overseas, not in America, that life first began to make sense and where the vague sense of confusion that seemed to surround everything was dissipated.
The four of them sometimes went on hikes together around a low mountain near Dodoma. They took food and a bottle of Chianti, and in the late afternoon they followed the dirt track leading out of the town. They walked among the rocks and boulders, talking and laughing about themselves, about their hopes, and about the world around them. They were filled with affection and good will toward everyone they knew, and they were sure everyone felt the same about them.
They lived at the upper reaches of their youth and happiness, not seeing how it could ever end. Up on the low mountain they had a secret place where they used to sit and talk, a huge hollow that had been slowly formed in the rock by time and the wind. They were sheltered there from the cool evening breeze; they could build a fire and cook their food and watch the sky grow dark and the lights flicker on in the town far below.
During those times David felt happier than he’d ever been before. He felt as though he could explode with happiness. He was happy with his work and happy to have as his friends the kind of young men he’d always admired, the kind he’d always wanted to be like.
Part 2, Chapter 18
Mungu ibariki Africa
Wabariki Viongozi wake…
Tubariki watoto wa Afrika.
–Tanganyika, Wimbo wa Taifa
God bless Africa,
Bless its leaders…
Bless the children of Africa.
–Tanganyika, National Anthem
Life in Tanganyika that year was dominated by one single, important event: the independence of the country in early December. David’s thinking, as might be expected, was preoccupied at a deeper and more unconscious level with his own personal independence. Perhaps that’s what really made it exciting for him to be present in the country when a change of such historic proportions was taking place. For although he had in many ways developed a perhaps too sympathetic attitude toward many aspects of colonial life, he had done so without realizing it, and he felt no sense of conflict at all between his unconscious sympathies for colonialism and a conscious desire to see Tanganyika become an independent nation. He felt great enthusiasm for the political and social change that was about to take place in the country.
This external event paralleled the inner events of his own life. Without fully understanding it, he was continuing a process of attempting to achieve his own independence from those people and institutions he saw as suffocating and threatening him. Primarily — and this he could never forget — it was his parents he wanted to be independent of.
The real independence of a country like Tanganyika, though, could not be achieved overnight by a simple legal act, nor could David’s own independence be obtained so easily. In the face of all the negative pressures that threatened and limited his freedom, pressures he felt were exerted both by his parents and by society itself, he would never be able to maintain the euphoria of freedom he was experiencing in Africa. Fortunately, however, he didn’t know that then.
When independence was celebrated in Tanganyika, people celebrated what they expected the future to bring, more than what was actually happening. Independence meant different things to each person, and at different levels of awareness, although everyone did have one thing in common: a feeling of extraordinary happiness and goodwill.
The independence festivities began in the evening with parties everywhere, and with processions through the streets of Dodoma. Every African David encountered then looked as though he or she wanted to share the almost overwhelming sense of happiness. By midnight nearly everyone in Dodoma — African, European, and Asian — had gathered at the football stadium for the local version of the main independence ceremony being held in the capital. James Harrison, the Provincial Commissioner, presided in his dress uniform — white pith helmet, white jacket and trousers, rows of medals across his chest. He made a striking impression — everyone knew it was the last time he would ever dress that way — as he stepped from his car under the lights, and the air filled with the strains of “Land of Hope and Glory.” Even in this remote part of what was left of the empire, the British were still capable of producing drama, emotion, and color in public ceremonies.
Like most young people at such moments, however, David was oblivious to the fact that he was witnessing not simply the beginning of a period of history, but also the end of one. The fact is that David and many other people — even many Africans — would later come to believe that they had never really appreciated the period that had ended, and that this period had contained many more advantages than they realized when they were living through it.
Such thinking, though, has not been uncommon at many times and in many places.
The independence ceremony in Dodoma was did not last long. The British know that the most striking effects can sometimes be produced by keeping things as brief as possible. After the opening music, the Provincial Commissioner walked toward the center of the football field, where the Union Jack was flying from a pole in the warm breeze of an equatorial summer. The first notes of “God Save the Queen” were heard, and as everyone began singing, he saluted, standing immobile in a spotlight. When the last word of the last phrase of the anthem sounded, the field was plunged into darkness, the Union Jack came down, and the new flag of Tanganyika was raised. When the lights came on again, hundreds of voices broke into the new national hymn.
Then there was prolonged cheering and applause, as though for a victory. Everyone there, David included, seemed convinced a new world was being born, and in a sense it was, though it would eventually turn out not to be quite the world we’d been expecting.
The celebrations ended at the football field, but in other places they went on until morning. Jack and David followed a huge crowd of Africans who were moving away from the stadium toward the African section of town. They had occasionally visited that part of Dodoma, but they’d never been welcomed with as much warmth and as many smiles as they were now. After all, people like David and Jack were there to help build the nation — as everyone expressed it at the time — and so the Africans considered them friends.
They came to an intersection and saw a large group of Africans dancing in the street. There was an even larger crowd of people singing and clapping and watching the dancers as they moved in simple repetitive steps around some musicians who were producing beautiful, wild music that raced and swirled and throbbed around them in the air. Someone reached out and took Jack and David by the hands and pulled them into the circle. Everyone smiled at them. The music and the clapping became louder.
They joined the dancers and went on singing and dancing. David could not remember when he had felt such intense, innocent happiness. Though he did not understand it then, the source of his happiness was probably not so much the celebration itself, but simply the fact that he’d briefly become part of a group of people who were themselves overwhelmed with joy.
The happiness he felt was perhaps also based on the unconscious belief that he too had won his independence. Possibly more than anything else, though, he was simply happy to be part of the laughing, whirling, dancing crowd of people. Once again in Africa, the loneliness and the sense of isolation were gone.
David of course assumed they were gone forever.
He felt part of a community; he’d found a place in the world; he felt he fitted in, that he was no longer a stranger. He was even convinced he would feel that way forever, since he was young and could not think how that kind of happiness could ever possibly end.
For a few brief hours he felt the illusory exaltation of someone who thinks he sees all of his problems solved, who believes all of his unhappiness has disappeared as though it had never existed, and who takes it for granted that such things should happen. After all, he thought, he too had achieved his independence, hadn’t he? He was secure in it, and he believed he would never have to worry about it being taken away from him.
He was too young — and, to put it bluntly again, too stupid — to understand the real source of his happiness.
Without thinking very much about it, David continued to follow a fairly routine observance of the religion he had more or less been raised in. It never occurred to him that it might be that routine observance that was grounding his very being in happiness. It certainly never occurred to him until much later that his being could be grounded in God. He was really quite oblivious to the fact that it was by at least trying to do what is right, or trying to avoid what was wrong — or at least being sorry he hadn’t always avoided it — that had brought him happiness in Africa — in the land, in the people, in his work, in his friends.
He still never even thought about the possibility of losing the things he believed were making him happy. If he had thought about it, certainly he might have been afraid. The idea common to many faiths and many philosophies, the idea that the only way he could ever gain real happiness would be to lose everything he had — he had heard of that idea of course, but it was something he had absolutely no comprehension of at all.
Part 2, Chapter 19
“I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths….”
For Once, Then, Something
At first, nothing changed very dramatically after independence. James Harrison remained Provincial Commissioner, and life in the country continued much the same as it always had. David planned to go to Dar es Salaam with Jack for Christmas, and he had to make a formal request to the Provincial Commissioner to be absent from the province. He found this requirement, which was imposed on all civil servants, somewhat quaint and amusing, particularly since he had to write a formal letter in the antique style of the Colonial Service. “I have the honour to request permission,” he wrote, “to be absent from Central Province during the Christmas holidays.” Then followed a description of his travel plans, before he concluded the letter with the approved formula: “I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant, David Austin, District Officer III, Dodoma.”
The idea of having to close a letter as anyone’s “obedient servant” was indescribably funny to him, and that reaction has since made him wonder how long he could have survived as a member of the Colonial Service if the British Empire had remained intact, and he, an American, could have been part of it. His feeling of amusement would probably have turned to cynicism eventually, and he would very likely have ended up as one more imperial misfit.
Years later, in his Walter Mitty moods, David liked to think he might have joined the company of other misfits like George Orwell, E. M. Forester, and Paul Scott. However, it is also possible he might have ended up as just one more of those nameless wrecks that are left twisted and crushed by the forces that drive the seemingly endless expansion of every institution of our civilization.
If he ever had become cynical oddball, he would, like all such men, have had to have a dream to begin with, something he could be cynical about. For him the dream was Africa, and something like that was perhaps different from the kind of dream other young men have. However, what he did share with many others was an utter obliviousness to the fact that anyone who wants to realize a dream will have to undergo a certain amount of suffering. That’s something that modern human beings avoid at all costs, whenever and wherever possible. For them — for us — suffering is something to be avoided. It doesn’t necessarily indicate that we’ve done something bad, because for most “modern people” ideas of good and bad no longer exist. Instead, suffering seems to mean we have not put our lives together in the right way. Suffering, many of us appear to believe, is really a failure of organization.
Naturally, too, the idea that anyone might find joy in suffering is absurd, if not downright obscene, for most us. Certainly the idea that there could be a deity who invites us to share in his suffering in order to build a better world is for many absolutely perverse. Foolish or not, a few young men like David dreamed of the highest kind of achievement, of helping to complete that mysterious structure human beings seem to have been working on since the beginning of time, and under those circumstances, suffering is inevitable.
Some may say the “mysterious structure” should really be called “civilization,” others “culture,” but whatever it may be, it’s something that seemed to young men like David to reach up into a higher world. They thought of it as one of the only real labors of love that there is.
David sometimes thought that this was a truth that men of earlier generations may have understood much better than we do. He thought that they must have known, for example, that as they labored through the decades to complete epic poems, systems of philosophy, insights into the material world, and as they worked to complete structures like the great cathedrals, they were in their own way fitting together an edifice of which we ourselves are now the elements.
They must have thought — or dreamed — that the cornerstone of the edifice was really that mysterious component of man that makes him immortal.
In the end, David thought that those heroes, seekers, and builders of past ages created more, perhaps, than monuments of great beauty, monuments that still speak to men and women even in these later dark centuries, as David thought of them.
David believed something more. He believed that the great men and women of earlier ages also created part of that invisible and seemingly eternal human structure that extends through time, a structure that may include our poor efforts as well.
Sometimes, on the arid plateau of East Africa, he used to think of Europe and of the people crowding into some of those monuments, the ones built of stone: Notre Dame, Chartres, Mont St. Michel, and he used to wonder what they were looking for. Is it something that those structures can only hint at? Were people looking for a deeper meaning to their existence, a sign of the transcendent in a world where everything is so obviously passing away?
Without fully understanding it themselves, were people looking for something more in life than the daily round of commuter trips and television commercials, the endless movement and the empty promises of a restless and spiritually limited age? Do they perhaps know in their hearts that the ultimate goal of human existence cannot be found in one more vacation trip, in one more car or house, or in the purchase of one more cunningly advertised product?
The goal, David would think, is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. The goal is everywhere and nowhere. The goal, as someone like T. S. Eliot might have said — and as David firmly believed — was actually manifested in that little round host raised somewhere over an altar at every passing moment.
David didn’t always understand much of that, though, when he was in Africa. Later, sometimes, he would think he’d never understood any of it at all. As a boy he might have learned something of God from the good nuns. As a boy, he might have cried with what he thought was the desire for wisdom, and thrilled in his adolescent way whenever he heard the command to love God with all his heart and all his mind and all his soul and with all his strength — and his neighbor as himself — but in Africa he still thought true happiness was a trip to Dar es Salaam with his buddies in the Peace Corps. It was only much later that the larger thoughts would come back to him.
Before that Christmas trip for which he, as an “obedient servant,” had asked permission, they had all had a long discussion about how they should travel. For Jack and him the entire trip to Dar would be an adventure, and they wanted to make it one right from the beginning: they wanted to hitchhike nearly three hundred miles through the bush to reach their destination. They wanted to experience the “real” Africa.
The others wanted to take a bus. Jack and David said they didn’t want to feel “insulated” inside a bus, even in an African bus careening over hundreds of miles of dusty roads. The others were determined, though, but so were Jack and David, so in the end everyone did what they wanted.
Jack and David left Dodoma early one morning, three days before Christmas. They walked to the eastern edge of the town carrying their backpacks, two tanned, energetic, healthy young Americans. They thought they were open to adventure and to all the world had to offer, though they were in fact in many ways more ignorant than they could possibly have known.
The morning air was dry and cool. The sun had just risen and the sky smiled down on them, a brilliant blue dome arching high over their heads. They were given their first lift to the eastern edge of Dodoma, to a small bridge that crossed a dry river bed. There they stood for a while taking in the slightly surreal scene. In back of them lay the town with the neat, red-roofed buildings and houses of the European quarter on one side, and the jumbled streets of the African and Indian section on the other. The tarmac ended right where they were standing, and the dusty and unpaved highway lay ahead of them. There was an enormous expanse of open country between them and the sea: first, that almost moon-like aridity of Central Province and then, gradually, the lush greenery of the coastal plain.
For both Jack and David the trip was perhaps the continuation of a larger journey as well, a journey not simply into the unknown world of East Africa, but into themselves as well. Like most Americans of that time, they thought little about any possible dangers ahead, either from without or from within. They expected only good things from life, and for the time being that is exactly what they found.
For David the trip represented what he thought was another step forward toward freedom from the past, from the dark world of his mother and stepfather. Traveling eastward into the African dawn with a friend and companion, he thought innocently that he could never be happier in life. He could not imagine what more he could want from the world. And even more innocently — and rather stupidly — he could not imagine that this state of mind would ever change.
Perhaps it never would have, if he’d understood what that state of mind was really based on. David seemed to have the vague idea, though, that his happiness was somehow the result of his own efforts. He believed that as long as he did nothing wrong, his happiness would continue. He felt there could be nothing he would ever exchange for the sense of joy he felt, the bright aura of joy that was like a place he was now inhabiting, where everything in the world made sense, and where everything in the world seemed to be conspiring to bring him happiness.
He forgot what he’d learned as a child, and the possibility of a better kind of joy never occurred to him. Nor did he then think of something that he would in fact remember much later: the possibility of gaining that better joy by giving up the one he thought he had.
For over eight hours that day Jack and he traveled slowly across Tanganyika, watching the country undergo its transformation from semi-desert to the tropics. They rode in almost every kind of vehicle: ancient Peugeot pickups driven by wealthy but frugal Indians, massive government trucks with their African drivers, and shiny new English sedans with prosperous colonials at the wheels.
When they reached Dar es Salaam, they checked into a cheap, clean Indian hotel, and then walked around the city for a while. It seemed strange to move through the hot, dark, streets and realize it was nearly Christmas. He felt a little homesick, and in the heat and under the unfamiliar stars he thought about friends from high school and from Harvard. He could almost hear Ella Fitzgerald singing a rather simple-minded song he and his friends in the States used to sing at Christmas. He didn’t see that even those sentimental lyrics expressed the ancient dream and expectation of humankind: the hope that whatever Christmas may be, there is somewhere, in some dimension or other, a place where Christmas will last forever, a place accessible to human beings, where they will always be with those they love, in endless happiness. It wasn’t a fantasy for David, but neither could he really imagine the actuality of such a thing, even though he realized that that was perhaps all any human being has ever wanted.
Surprisingly, perhaps, if David could have been with any group of people then, it might have been the friends he’d had when he was growing up. However, even though he missed them, he also enjoyed thinking about how far he had come from them: the long journey to Africa, the even longer one to Harvard.
No matter how much he might have wanted to go back to the friends he’d had before Harvard, he at least knew the forces that moved his life made such a thing impossible. Whether he wanted it now or not, he’d made his choice: “he was out for stars.”
At any rate, the need to escape from his parents would by itself have prevented him from remaining close to the friends he missed. If he’d remained with them, remained in the place where he’d grown up, he would never have been free of his mother and stepfather and their tangled world. It had been difficult enough, after all, to be free of all that even when he was at Harvard.
Perhaps there are many people who would say that even later David never did become free of his mother and stepfather at all, that in a sense he remained subject to their horrors until the end of his life.
That may be true to a certain extent. Certainly their influence continued to have an effect on his life for years, and in a number of significant ways. Yet in other ways that are equally significant, his life did follow a path that would have been impossible if his mother and stepfather had been able to exert the kind of total control over him that they wanted, the kind his poor mother in particular was obsessed with.
If his mother and stepfather had been able to exert that control, David would certainly have been destroyed by the conflict between their limited expectations for him and his own conviction that he could and must transcend those expectations.
Much later in life, David often thought he knew exactly how Ishmael felt after the horrors of the voyage on the Pequod: “I alone am escaped to tell thee.”
Part 2, Chapter 20
“O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous….”
If there were times when David felt homesick, homesickness was the least of his problems. He was convinced that his life had now become a great adventure, and that the adventure would continue. On that first evening in Dar with Jack, as they walked around the quiet streets of the dark, sleepy capital, he enjoyed thinking about how much he’d already done in his life — and he really believed that it was he alone who had done it.
He’d gone from a small town in Michigan to Harvard and now to East Africa, where he was doing work that was more difficult and more responsible than anything most people his age were doing. And if he had achieved so much in such a short period of time, he thought to himself, what limits were there really to what he could do?
He certainly would not have been so sure of himself if he’d known that his mother was thinking exactly the same thing, and trying to figure out how to stop it. As far as she was concerned — poor, sad woman — David was her property, her possession, to be disposed of only as she wanted. Anything David might do that would take him outside the boundaries of her control was to be prevented at all costs, even if it meant she would have to risk destroying him.
If in the end David survived what his mother tried to do to him, he couldn’t have done so if he hadn’t always kept one idea in mind. She could not have done anything to him, as Aquinas might have put it, that would not have ultimately produced a good greater than the good there might have been if she had actually tried to help him.
This kind of thinking, tortured as it was, was necessary for David’s survival. He believed — or at least wanted to believe — that his mother could not have made him suffer as she did, trying to twist his life into a shape that would fit her own purposes, if there were not some larger purpose at work in his life, even in the universe itself. Of course it may be an illusion, but he believed that no one has any power over us at all if that power does not serve a larger and better purpose. We, however, have to try to do the right thing in every situation, David told himself, and we have to forgive those who wrong us and make us suffer and try to destroy us, even if they are our own mothers, especially, of course, if they are our own mothers.
David had no idea at that time just how much there would be for him to forgive, because by remaining in Africa and by asserting his independence and his sense of himself as an adult human being, he aroused in his mother and stepfather more hatred than he could ever have understood at the time. He aroused in them a desire to bring to heel the independent person he had become, or to destroy that person if necessary.
This desire of theirs was much greater and stronger than he could ever possibly have imagined. He had no idea what would like ahead after he returned from Africa.
He had no idea how vulnerable he was, at the very time he thought he was so strong.
His mother, that poor pathetic woman he’d even prayed for as best he could, hated and feared him now. He was growing up and might leave her. According to her eccentric view of things, not only was he abandoning her, he was making her grow old. He was refusing to allow her to bind him to her so that she would never grow old and never be alone.
David’s stepfather, on the other hand, sad and tragic man, hated David because David was filled with youth and strength, at the same time that David’s stepfather was growing old. If David’s strength could undermined and destroyed, his stepfather seems to have thought, if David could be cut down or at least reduced to a weak, helpless state, then what was left of his own life would be secure, and he would feel an increase in his own strength.
Perhaps few people will believe such things are impossible? Few will believe that a parent or step-parent could behave in such a way. Such innocence is to be envied. Such people are to be envied for not knowing that the varieties of human perversity seem to be limitless. They’re to be envied for being as David was then: young in spirit, and so naive that they knew nothing about even the simplest forms of human viciousness. As David did then, they must think that all the world is good and kind for the most part. They must even think the world is conspiring to increase their happiness.
In Dar es Salaam that Christmas David was happier than many people ever are, and blinder too, with absolutely no idea of the horrors waiting for him when he returned to the United States. He had no idea it was the last really happy Christmas he would ever have, for in the long years that were to follow, there were many Christmases when he was convinced that he could not survive.
Undermined by his parents, torn apart by conflicts over what kind of human being he really was, over what he could ever do in life, over what he wanted to do — he could never have survived in any way at all if he had not had the help he believed was available to him when, groaning and at the end of his strength, he could do nothing but concentrate all his energy on uttering one more desperate prayer, not thinking about whether it would be heard, almost not caring about anything else, only wishing to cry out in such a way that it might shake the universe itself to its very foundations so that somewhere, somehow the cry would be heard.
In times of seemingly endless misery in the future, he would think that that Christmas in Africa was a kind of leave-taking, directed to all he would ever know of happiness. Or, as he would have put it, all he would ever know of happiness in this life. In those years that followed, he would be convinced that his life would be circumscribed only by pain and darkness, until the last moment, although at rare times he thought he might possibly understand that the pain and darkness could be a means to a far greater happiness than we can even conceive of.
During that Christmas in Dar, when David did take leave of the happiness of childhood and youth, he felt wonderful because of course he didn’t know what was happening. It would hardly have been so wonderful, if he’d known part of his life was ending. He, however, poor deluded boy, thought that the best part of his life was about to begin.
And some would say he remained deluded his whole life long, because he eventually wanted to believe that perhaps, in a way that people like Teresa of Avila of Juan de la Cruz would have understood, his life really was beginning then. He would have been the first to admit, though, that it was usually difficult for him to see that.
On that first full day of the Christmas holiday in Dar, though, he felt drenched in happiness. He got up early, some time before dawn, and Jack and he left the hotel just as the sun was rising. They were expected for breakfast at the home of the head of the Peace Corps in Tanganyika. They walked along the edge of the ocean, near the cathedral, and watched the sky grow brighter out over the sea. The air was cool and there was a sense of great calm everywhere, a sense of something wonderful occurring, and something even more wonderful about to occur.
David felt such intense happiness that he was sure it was the kind of happiness that could never be destroyed. When the sun finally made its dramatic, sudden appearance out of the Indian Ocean, its ascent like a crescendo in a symphony, he thought to himself in a kind of adolescent delirium of joy. “No matter what happens to me, I will always have this, always this moment, and nothing will ever be able to rob me of it.”
And though it would be easy to disparage such an idea now, perhaps it was not such a completely wrong-headed thought after all. Perhaps in a way that immense joy never really did leave him, though of course he would not always be able to retain the sense of it he had at that moment.
Perhaps that happiness embedded itself so deeply in his consciousness that all the years of grief and despair and confusion that were to follow could never completely obliterate it. That happiness may have been a sign and a promise of what he knew then and very often thought later: that beyond everything we can see of this world, beyond the black hole of darkness and all the other things here, there is another world, and there is an element in us and in that world that nothing can destroy if we do not want it to.
It is the ground of our being that shares in all that is not mortal, not passing or transitory, not continually dying.