The girl out of Africa

Forget the convent; the real saying is

You can take the girl out of Africa, but you cannot take Africa out of the girl.

Another quotation which only half-sprung to mind and strangely attributed in my internal workings to Heinrich Böll, but which it seems really belongs to Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian and philosopher (1813-1855), is this one:

Verstehen kann man das Leben nur rückwärts. Leben muß man es vorwärts.

All right, that was unfair, but that is how I half-remembered it – in German.

The English:

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

I do not know whether Søren Kierkegaard said it in Danish first or not, and would be happy to be educated by some kind reader’s comment!

Put these two thoughts together, and then listen to part of a concert which I attended in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1987, officially known as Graceland: The African Concert.

Unless you were there too, of course, it is unlikely that you can begin to understand how enormous a wave of nostalgia engulfs me.

Or that you would ever think that many of the audience in Rufaro Stadium (an open-air soccer pitch with lots of grandstands) were there not only to hear Paul Simon live, but excited that on that same afternoon the stage would be crowded with so many of Africa’s greats, whom I name here in no particular order, for fear of doing any one of them a disservice: Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ray Phiri, Joseph Shabalala, and the Ladysmith Black Mambazo. So who, really, was the main event? We all were.

These sounds may be strange to you. The music feels like home to me and always will. Familiar; in my blood. The fact that all these talented musicians truly met at the intersection between Western and African music makes it all the more special; a grand moment.

On that day, we stood pretty close to the stage. I have my 1.75 seconds of dancing fame in one of the videos – I forget which song. (My beloved spotted it coincidentally on VH1 years later. OK, I wasn’t dancing, I was jumping up and down in time to the music. So much for that. It felt great, anyway.)

What I did not know was that I was creating my past. That I would carry this day in my heart. That sounds and sights from then could lend such strong colour to my vision now. That I would ever be a “girl out of Africa”.

If you see me or one of my African brothers or sisters in the street, or meet us by chance one day, remember our hearts still carry at least some of the beat of township jive, and so much more from so many places that you cannot know. We know we are different from you in ways only we know.

That is why when we meet you – the people of the rest of the world – we look straight at you with eyes as wide as a savannah horizon and greet you with smiles and handshakes that may seem too friendly. You see, we know that you have been places that we can never know, that each drum has a different beat, and different peoples have different drums.

We also know that there is a place, somewhere in the vast middle between us where we can and do meet. Somewhere we are both “empty as a pocket with nothing to lose“.


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