I am having a hard time putting my thoughts down. Its like being a shepherd without a sheepdog, trying to coral a flock of bloody minded sheep charging off in all directions. At the best of times the inside of my head can be likened to a fire alarm drill in a lunatic asylum. But on this occasion it's taking chaos to a new level.
Next month I will be stepping foot on the continent where I was born and spent my early childhood. Africa. It won't be the childhood haunts of Kenya which I remember so vividly. I'll be visiting South Africa, but I have no doubt the sights, sounds and smells will resonate with me fiercely.
I simply don't know how to describe what I am feeling. I keep having this visual: an old wooden box on the floor illuminated by a shaft of light in an otherwise dark room. I'm circling slowly around it. Then I'm sitting in an armchair in an obscure corner, motionless save for the subtle rub of thumb against fingertip. My body language speaks volumes. But the words disintegrate as soon as I attempt to translate them.
I left Africa when I was nine and if I were to compare who I am now to who I remember myself to be then, the differences are negligible. At nine years old my self identity had been honed and chilseled, molded and, in some aspects, hammered, into shape. Then baked under the African sun and permanently set. The much quoted words of Aristotle spring to mind: "Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man."
As a child I was very much left to my own devices to make sense of things. I dont recall ever being given pep talks by an adult, least of all my parents who conducted their relationship with their siblings in what, retrospectively, appears to have been the standard way of colonials. They were like absentee landlords, delegating responsibilities to hired staff – in the case of children, to a trusted nanny or "aiya". My parents were always there, somewhere;they floated in and out of my peripheral vision. In and out of my own personal little Jumanji world. There could have been a lot more intimate interaction with my parents that I don't recall, but of significance is the fact that I don't recall it. Nonetheless I never felt unloved or abandoned. One of the greatest credits I can grant to my parents is that, in the circumstances of my privileged colonial upbringing, and the glaringly obvious social segregation drawn along racial lines, I never picked up a whiff of racism. I was never made aware of colour differences. Whether it was my African nanny, or our African cook or African gardener, I regarded them all as affable characters inhabiting my world.
Several years later in Dubai, when I had started to come to terms with the fact that I wasnt an African, I still remained blissfully oblivious to ethnic distinctions. This time with regard to Arabs. I have simply never understood racism. Lines of division that are drawn based upon racial or ethnic distinctions (or religion or social status) are, for me vacuous and irrelevant. Given that I am an artist, in this one particular respect,I am colour blind. And I thank God for it.
So, fifty years down the line, I'm heading back to reingage with Africa. My eyes are probably going to melt with sensory overload. I'm probably going to catch sight of women haggling at market stalls who will resemble faces I have imagined and painted. And I might wonder if I dreamt of them or they dreamt of me. Of women standing on street corners or under the dappled shade of trees, and my cup of coffee will go cold as I absorb them and etch them into memory. No doubt as I have been told repeatedly, the landscapes are going to be stunning. But it's the faces I will be watching out for. I know I won't be picking up any snatches of Swahili, it's South Africa after all, but I wonder if, in the merging of past and present, someone whose beautiful features I have been gazing upon might turn to me and say Habari Mtoto…(welcome, Child).
"If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?” Karen Blixen