January 2007

Barbara J. King

features

That White-Woman Genre: Marie Javins in Africa (Jane Goodall Too)

Ask me for a good book about Africa and I’ll send you to authors like Nuruddin Farah or to idea-fountains like Moorishgirl.com. Stories from African voices are the ones I crave, of savanna poetry and city jazz, of colonial grief and madness, of newly glorious landscapes, exterior and interior, stretching from Kinsasha to Khartoum.  

Yet I seek out something else too: nonfiction by young white women who go to Africa to chase a dream. Maybe this is because I dream of Kenya still, Kenya where I turned 30 in the midst of yearlong baboon’ing, where I fell in love in so many ways. As a visiting researcher I inhabited a little room in a house within Amboseli National Park, with an open-to-the-air half-mesh wall that brought in nightsounds: the great bulk of an elephant munching through my back yard, the rushing roar of lions and hyenas. Daytime, I monkey-watched; made Masai friends; met Kikuyu families; traveled by night train to Mombasa’s coastal rhythms; spent a day in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro with friendly young hands fluttering at my hair because (clichés earn their truth sometimes) these kids hardly ever had seen sun-blonded lightness.   

Isak Dinesen’s resonant first sentence “I had a farm in Africa,” Caroline Alexander’s retracing of 19th century Mary Kingsley’s footsteps, Jane Goodall’s discoveries of new natural worlds, they all stir me still, and so Marie Javins’s new Capetown-to-Cairo travelogue caught my eye. Javins set out in 2001 on round-the-world escapism from her comic book job. Melding a disdain for jet travel with embrace of the idea that whatever’s worth doing is worth sharing via the web, she made plans: “I’d go around the world in a calendar year, and I’d do it live, on the Internet. I’d go without airplanes, but I wouldn’t stubbornly stick to that in emergencies. I’d send readers souvenirs from their virtual tour, and readers could vote on my route and excursions.” 

Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik is Javins’s account of the Africa portion of that trip. Hers is a young voice, with growing room for sustainably good writing. No first-sentence rival here for Dinesen. Still, a perfectly pitched mix of certainty and uncertainty -- what she knows because she absorbs it through her skin as she travels, and what has no ready answer -- lights the pages of Dik-Dik and makes this book a worthwhile journey.

As on all such trips, a few rocky places cause stumbles: the chapter titles too alliterated and jokey -- Dazed in Dar, Addled in Addis, Gorillas of the Bad Gas -- or the obligatory confession about the nature of modern Africa: “When I’d thought of going to Namibia, I’d thought of tribes, deserts, elephants, and dirt roads. I hadn’t thought of shopping malls, Germans, potable water, and pristine toilets. I felt foolish as I looked around at what looked like a typical industrialized country. Africa was challenging my preconceptions, and I still hadn’t left the cities.”

Once dug through, these layers of overcute and overearnest expose a book with heart, written by a traveler -- no tourist, Marie -- who meets the world ready to see and do. Some solid eco-thrills gird the book, as when Javins canoes down the Zambezi between Zimbabwe and Zambia (an unforced and beautiful alliteration, that). She encounters large waterborne beasts: “Hippos exploded out of the water around us. They can stay under water for five to six minutes and when they come up suddenly, the result is a massive expulsion of air and water followed by a surprised pair of eyes and a pinkish snout. I was wondering if [river guide] Bono had been lying to me about a legendary hippo that could bite a canoe in half, when he started issuing instructions. ‘Follow me,’ he barked. He’d been aiming right for a hippo and now suddenly cut directly across the river into deep water. ‘Paddle left,’ he told me. I paddled furiously on the left. Sweat and effort didn’t bother me anymore.”

The gorilla-tourism section works well, but Javins’s sanguine stance on the status of these apes cries out for correction. “In the early ‘80s, there were 242 mountain gorillas left in the wild. Today there are more than six hundred… This is surely due to public awareness and gorilla tourism.” Six hundred mountain gorillas is too fragile a foundation for celebration, especially when across the continent, Western lowland gorillas die by the thousands from the double whammy of the ebola virus and the unconscionable apes-as-beef bushmeat trade.   

I escaped into Flashback Mode. Javins sites a meeting at the 680 Hotel on Nairobi’s Kenyatta Avenue, a place I once mecca’ed to monthly, to plumb the wonders of Xerox machines (for safekeeping the data) and American-hotel cheeseburgers and chocolate (for safekeeping the mental health).

And then I noticed that uncertainty, a not-knowing-for-sure that’s wholly to Javins’s credit. In Tanzania, Marie encounters young Masai boys who dressed traditionally in hopes of being photographed by tourists, for money. “It made me uncomfortable, as I couldn’t decide if this were a perfectly valid exchange of assets or some kind of cultural self-exploitation.” In Uganda, reading a newspaper in a café, Marie is approached by a girl who hints of a need to pay school fees: “I always wrestle with questions of aid on the road. I believe in spending money in local economies, but I also believe that direct handouts are not productive. The idea of the tourist as Santa Claus seems wrong to me, designed mostly to make the tourists feel good about themselves as they hand out candy, white the local kids get rotten teeth out of the deal. But education? Was that different? I felt squeamish.”   

Thank God, Javins does not insist upon seeing every challenge in Africa as exhilarating, as some travel writers do (and would never do in the US or Europe). Ethiopia wears her out: “ My travel weary brain was barely a match for the hunger-inspired creativity of Addis Ababa’s finest con artists. And while two weeks in the countryside immersed in Ethiopia’s rich culture had been rewarding, as Ethiopia is one of the few African nations untouched by colonization, the downside had been exhausting. White tourists are uncommon in rural Ethiopia, and I’d been poked, touched, and yelled at one a regular basis.” 

Yet the sum of her experiences -- in Zanzibar on September 11, 2001, and everywhere else -- carved certainties too into her brain. Remember her plan to let web-readers choose her route? Vote they did, but Marie mutinied: “Dozens of people had warned me not to go into post-September 11 Sudan. ‘It’s full of terrorists,’ wrote MariesWorldTour.com readers. ‘You’ll be kidnapped! You’ll be killed!’ It was the first and only time I flagrantly ignored the will of the readers… as an American abroad on September 11, I felt a responsibility to culturally interact with people in Muslim nations and to demonstrate a lack of terror. My contribution to world peace was microscopic, but I could offer a smile and a few pleasantries in place of paranoia.” (To insert a scientist’s-eye view, I’d note that microscopic events can be life-changing ones.)

Dik-Dik roused in me a want for more hits of Africa just as Dale Peterson published his biography, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man. Only partway into the 685 text pages, I find fascinating the pre-famed Jane, the young girl who imagined herself in the African bush from earliest days on, then found herself living that imagination. Summer 1960, and Goodall, already in Africa, is housed with her mother Vanne on Louis Leakey’s boat The Miocene Lady. Enduring a delay in start-up of the chimpanzee research that would soon rock the worlds of animal behavior and anthropology, Goodall set about a study of vervet monkeys on Lolui Island in Lake Victoria. Vanne, like any good primate mother, observes her child closely in this new environment: “The sun beats down, ants wander over her, her nose peels, her forehead peels, but she is there, never stopping her work for a single second. Happier than I’ve ever seen her… She melts into the landscape & would stay here for a year if she could.”

Forty-seven years later, Goodall still melts into an African landscape. Africa has room enough for all those with eyes open to its wonders, and especially for those who write those wonders. 

In the New Year, may your Africa bookshelf swell with volumes of voices.    

-- Full disclosure: Barbara J. King herself succumbed to alliterative chapter-titling (e.g., From Apes to Angels) in her new book, Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion (to be published by Doubleday, January 16).