EXPOSED

Posted: February 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In other words, before God could do anything at all, he had to have words. The Australian aborigines believe that they can sing the world into existence, that the naming of things renders them real and visible. And some scholars believe that the word abracadabra derives from the Aramaic, avra kehdabra, which means “I will create as I speak.”

So abracadabra – let me create as I speak. Let me wander those aboriginal song-lines and hum into being the characters of my first full-length feature script titled EXPOSED. Here they come, echoes from God knows where (and he really does know where), uninvited, really, just hovering, floating around in vitrio, pale gollums in the shadows, waiting to be born. Well, I suppose I did invite them the instant I put my mind to the task.

And here they are, as much a part of my daily life as my lovely daughter Sophie, who seems to inhabit the script whether I ask her to or not, incarnated as Jude, a sweetly savage teenage prostitute, a vagrant, trying to make it in the Hamptons. I weave my magic wand and there she is, asleep in a field when the camera clicks and I recognize Nora, the protagonist, a photographer who has until now lacked the vision to create a meaningful body of work. Click! Jude leaps out of her sleeping bag, cursing. Click! Nora snaps the picture, Jude enraged, eyes wide, mouth open, hair flying – a magnificent demon in the summer haze, a feral, untamed child.

Abracadabra. The plot unfolds. I am obsessed. Watch me exploring the bulrushes around ponds where Jude might hide. And there I am, in the East Hampton parking lot, checking out a black Camarro – the car that her pimp will use to track her down, speeding along the LIE like a demon possessed. She has stolen his money. He has stolen her soul. And there I am on the ferry to Shelter Island, Jude right next to me, hair blowing in the wind, her snarky nose in the air while Raji, a Pakistani deli clerk at the Sag Harbor 7 Eleven, surreptitiously eyes her nipples. Behind me, Nora, the protagonist, a photographer, bursting inside but outwardly repressed, accompanying this unlikely duo on a mysterious camping trip. They’re with me as I find the right beach with the great rock where Jude will find her name written in black marker while Raji remains in a clearing to pray on his mat, bowing towards Mecca in the sunshine summer of the Hamptons. I see Nora lay Jude out in the sand, almost naked, a crab on her belly, hair floating like dank seaweed, a sea nymph. She buries Jude in sand, only a shoulder visible, rising softly like a minor sand dune.

These photographs will bring Nora the fame she craves. They will cause her to break off her romantic relationship with Walter, an antique collector who wants nothing more then to add her to his valuables and keep her on a shelf forever. And they will expose Jude to great danger.   Therein lies the tension of my plot.

I have written it all. I have rewritten it 57 times. I sent the 57th draft to a hotshot Hollywood script-reader who took a lot of money to send me his “notes” on the script. A dreaded moment. He likes this, he likes that, he has encouraging words to say but I have failed to give my characters DEPTH.

I cast around for inspiration and find myself looking again at my daughter Sophie’s paintings. Her earlier works are interesting, accomplished, full of drama, vibrant color and written poetry, but they subsist on a flat plane, elements of a dream, of a life presented but unexamined. Her recent work, though, leaps a chasm, rendering with only a few strokes of a brush or a pen a damaged soul, a scene fraught with calm terror, a novel spun on a clothes line, a jaguar sauntering by. My heart shudders.

This is depth. What agonies has she suffered to arrive at this place?

Should I make my fictitious characters suffer more? Maybe Jude should have a fatal disease. AIDS would be too obvious. Denge Fever? Too contrived. Lymes Disease? Not bloody enough. Or since Raji eventually gets arrested as a terrorist suspect, perhaps Jude should be in love with him and follow him to Pakistan, where he is deported, thus throwing herself at the mercy of the Taliban. ..no, no, no. No depth there.  And how about Nora? I thought her depth came from the fact that she is an orphan, bonding with the family-less Jude in a queasy motherly-daughterly relationship that is always edgy, sometimes violent and financially profitable to both. Ah Nora, the artist, the suppressed genius who has spent years taking pretty pictures of flowers and landscapes that fill her with self-loathing.

Until she encounters Jude asleep in that field – the catalyst that will propel Nora out of safety, into a danger-zone that she both fears and desires. Click! Nora probes Jude’s soul, exposes her, turns her inside out and sends her on her way, in the process, exposing herself – her own shallowness, her own superficial art, the pristine whiteness of her sterile modern home.

I write it here, yet I have failed to give my characters depth in the script. I look at Sophie’s paintings. An old man on a bar-stool contemplates the dead bird on a stool next to him. A girl simply sits, a sketch, a nothing that makes my heart tremble. Abracadabra. My daughter has it, and I don’t.

THE WHITE AFRICANS

Posted: November 13, 2014 in Africa, Habari: African Insights, Kenya

They are lean men, born in Africa and now in the last decade of their lives. Leathery, freckled skin folds over elbows and knees, their hair is mousy, white, dirty blond, usually worn long. They drive a motorbike from the 1940s, or a 40-year-old Land Cruiser, or maybe even an ancient Ford. They live at the simplest possible level – sometimes so poor that running water and electricity are real luxuries, forced to tinker endlessly with their broken down water pump, with greasy generators or with the dusty, rusty wires of their car engine, everything disassembling in parallel to their own bodily decay. The roof of their house leaks, in the evenings they read the discarded paper from yesterday accompanied by the solemn tik-tak of drips collecting in a metal sufuria. The curtains are mere shredded rags at their windows. The scant furniture is colonial issue brown wood from the 1950s -solid, ugly, functional. Sometimes animal skulls leer from the walls, or African artifacts crumble in a hand-carved bowl. A mask, a carving of an elephant, an antique beaded Turkana doll, a moldy leather chest containing – who knows what? The last love letters, the kitchen toto, photographs of the family farmstead 50 years ago, of a lost child.

Perhaps they are well off and own a magnificent old stone house in the upper class white areas of town – Muthaiga, Karen, Kitisuru, or “up-country” in Nanyuki or Eldoret. Spacious buildings with fireplaces, many rooms, carvings, masks, zebra skin rugs and leather chairs and an extensive library of tomes on African history or long-lost tribal rituals. They are not disturbed by current politics, nor are they involved. Their servants have been with them for decades, faithful and ever-smiling cooks, gardeners and maids. The co-dependency was established 60 years ago and there is no reason to change it. Who will die first is the secret question whispering in the folds of the heavy drapes.

 Perhaps they are foreigners – French, German, American, Polish – who arrived in Africa as young students or volunteers or even refugees and have contracted le mal d’Afrique – that insidious disease that infects so many people who have tasted the raw red dust of the highlands on a gritty tongue or become enamored of the indigenous ways of life and find in them some soul echo that resonates in their deepest being forever. They have renounced their homeland, forgotten their roots and found their path in the cluttered city or its outskirts, or in the last remaining areas of bush, committed to performing the good works that ought to make life better for the African but serve also to alienate him ever more from his own roots.

 There are the women, too. War correspondents who have traveled the length and breadth of Africa, found their dark lovers here,    adopted African children. Animal lovers who have devoted their lives to the rPa with African staff 3escue of one or other species, whose homestead features tame ostrich, giraffe or hyena. The women who came with their men, lost their men, maybe their sons as well, and stayed, hardened, saved by their gardens, saved by their cook, saved by the country club and the chocolate desert, immune to the ravages of their sun-drenched skin.

There are those, like me, compelled to document this Africa that shakes us at the end of a mighty pole, like the fluffy yellow mimosa, subject to the winds of time. We write books, make films, take photographs, publish academic tracts, speak Swahili poorly, sell our work elsewhere, endlessly fascinated, debating, questioning, worrying. We leave, we return, we have other homes, other loyalties, yet we cannot break free. We yearn to truly belong, we envy those who do, yet we enjoy the air of romantic exoticism and wonder expressed abroad when we say, “I am a White African.”Iki, Oscar, shooting

There are the young ones, third or fourth generation, born of British farmer or South African Boer families. At home in the wild, consummate lovers of nature, of wildlife, of the early morning dew on the starling’s wing and of the rusty smell of earth before the rains. They may hunt as well as they start a new dot.com business. They may organize a music festival as well as they run a farm. They are ignorant of racial divides and move within a totally integrated circle of African, Asian and European friends. Theirs is an uncertain future, for they have recognized corruption as the great enemy of the nation that does not spare even the fourth generation White African. Could their land be confiscated? Will they – or even their parents – ever get citizenship? A legitimate work permit?A resident’s permit? How many times can a person who has lived in Kenya for 50 years, is married to a Kikuyu lady and supports three charitable foundations travel over to Tanzania and back just to get a “tourist” visa? And what is the end result of the frustration felt by White Africans who support whole families of African employees, pay school and medical fees, behave as good citizens, even though they aren’t, and generally act as full-fledged, contributing citizens of this nation, even though they are not? Will reverse racism force them to take drastic measures to preserve what they have inherited or built? Will the New Kenya – this vibrant, explosive, truly African nation, accept the new breed of White African as an integrated part of society? Or will they be forever dreamers, spending a lifetime merely passing through on the way to somewhere else, nostalgic for the unspoiled lands of their grandfathers, for the crackling photo albums of bygone days, for the faded pictures of Colonial times shared on Facebook?

Defined as a person of European descent who is born and raised in Africa, the very designation “White African” may disappear altogether, for as time moves on and youth connects with the world through social media, there may truly no longer be the need for such divisive descriptions. May we come to a place where an African is an African, valid to the state of the nation no matter what color his skin may be or where his original birthright finds its roots? Is this a desirable condition for White Africans? Would we be as proud to call ourselves Africans as we are to call ourselves White Africans? What old ghosts might wave their flags in surrender? What new demons might make themselves visible in the corner of our eye? And if we are to call ourselves simply “Kenyans,” where is the validation that makes us so?

These are the questions we face if Africa is our true home, the place where our soul lives, the irreplaceable font of our dreams, our work and our daily encounters with the “other.” These are the questions that the Kenyan power structure must ask itself if “white” is indeed included in the “One Kenya, One People” rainbow that makes for such a facile slogan. Or is white, after all, the one invisible colour today, left out of the kaleidoscope vision for the nation’s future? After all, following the famed advertisement for Omo detergent – “Omo Washes Whiter!” – we used to joke that “Jomo Washes Whiter.” Could it be that we were entirely washed out? I say “No!” to that suggestion. It is up to White Africans ourselves to define our identity within Kenya, to be proud citizens even without citizenship and to share the nation’s future, whatever it may be. We may be the only drops of milk in the Kenyan coffee – but it’s damn good coffee!!

WHO DJEW YOU THINK YOU ARE?

Posted: May 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

The great puzzlement to Jews and non-Jews is that Judaism shares some of the characteristics of a nation, an ethnicity, a religion, and a culture. Can we select only parts of this construct and still claim to be “Jews”? My documentary film, BEAUTIFUL TREE, SEVERED ROOTS  adds new perspectives to this age-old question.

My parents were adventurers who chose to live in Africa rather than emigrate elsewhere. They surely knew that in the early 1900s, Zionist leaders, desperate to offer persecuted Jews a safe homeland, were offered a section of northwestern Kenya as sanctuary by the British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. The controversial plan was eventually dropped. Had it succeeded, the Holocaust might never have happened as Jews would have been settled far from Europe’s anti-Semitic dictators and our lives might have been very different, as might have been the fate of Jews – and Kenyans – in general.

Viewers familiar with Hollywood films set in colonial Kenya, like OUT OF AFRICA, THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA and I DREAMED OF AFRICA will find a very different social paradigm to colonial Kenya in this documentary. As secular Jews and confirmed Socialists, my parents brought to the colony a unique Weltanschauung. Undoubtedly, their Judeo-Socialist paradigm equipped them to adapt to Africa and to African lifestyles and belief systems almost overnight. Their perspective on Africa and Africans differed vastly from that held by British colonials, who had come not only to exploit and make their fortune, but basically to suppress, enslave and conquer. My parents came to teach, learn and unite.   If my parents may be taken as “typical” models, this lends an interesting aspect to the character and aspirations of the European Jew in the African Diaspora.African Jews in Kenya

African Jews in Kenya

As a child, I was perfectly confident in my “Kenyanness” but as I grew older, I realized that our family was British but not English; that we sympathized with African causes but had our own racial prejudices; that my parents promoted racial harmony but forbade their children to enter the African areas of town; that our whiteness did not prevent us from being “different” and – in the eyes of our British friends – “exotic”; that most of my friends had some kind of religious beliefs but that we practiced fierce atheism; that my parents never talked about being Jewish, but would put their lives on the line as Jews if necessary; that for everyone else, England was “home” while for us, Kenya was home, despite our European heritage.

My parents devoted themselves to understanding African culture and improving the lives of Africans, but displayed an ambiguous relationship to African people. Our servants were treated fairly, but definitely as “inferior” beings, lower even than the European peasant, as my mother once stated, whereas educated Africans were befriended.

This raises interesting questions about Jewish-Black relations, traditionally fraught with racial and class tensions, as well as the liberal Jewish desire to “bond” with black victims of suppression, and reveals the complex interplay between international politics, colonial dominance, and anti-Semitic and anti-African racist ideologies.

These endless dichotomies puzzled me for years but I now realize that layers of identity are typical for any refugee, and that they eventually coalesce to form a whole. Identity is fluid, not rigid. Thus I believe that every Jew who examines his or her identity must come to the same conclusion: we are a multi-layered people with a multitude of origins, acquired nationalities and adaptations – perhaps as close to the “global citizen” as anyone will ever get.

I ask whether, in the age of universal digital communications, individuals will recognize their personal identity based not on geographical location or ethnicity but rather on globally shared political and religious/spiritual belief systems, various interests and hobbies and commercial connections. Thus, for example, where we might have been Jews first and environmentalists second in our personal identity construct, we may now be universally recognized as environmentalists first and Jews second, triggering a major paradigm shift in the whole question of identity. While maintaining Jewishness and Jewish practices, in this new world the “Jewish question” may become irrelevant. Nairobi synagogue

                The synagogue in Nairobi

Like many secular Jews, I feel at home everywhere and nowhere, which may be viewed as either a positive attribute for global survival or a negative attribute leading to “tribal” rejection and consequent isolation. Contemporary scholarly work on refugees concludes that new identities are constructed from nostalgia for the lost homeland coupled with either indifference to or passionate assimilation into the new homeland. When my parents arrived in Kenya, they did not let it be generally known that they were Jews, and did not seek out the Jewish community but preferred social adaptation to the mostly British colonial community and to focus their work on indigenous peoples. The Nairobi Hebrew Community recognized them as “real” Jews only because their work conformed to Jewish notions of “tikkum olam” or “healing the world.” Their worldview was passed down to their children, thus we may claim “Jewishness” if for no other reason than this.

Most Jews will call themselves Jews first, and describe their nationality second. I call myself a Kenyan first, with various additional identities lower on the list. Nevertheless, all events in my family history lead to the inescapable fact that we are Jewish and that our destinies have been inevitably formed by this identity, no matter what additional layers of “self” have been added over time.  A Jewish scholar whose name I have forgotten  said:  “If there is a contemporary Jewish ‘identity menu,’ I choose one that is not religious, does not celebrate with traditional foods and holidays, does not speak Hebrew or belong to a particular Jewish community, does not revere Israel as my home, yet will always accept my “Jewishness” even though I am not sure how, exactly, that manifests itself or even whether it matters.”  My thoughts exactly.

 

 

Hello everyone!

 

First, let me please apologize to those of you who have sent me notes in the past, to most of which I haven’t responded because I never saw them!  Please forgive me – it’s a lame excuse – but I didn’t scroll down far enough or pay enough attention.  In any case, I am sorry but so happy that you did write to me and share your news about Kenya, and I will try to respond to all of you, even though your posts are several years old.

I am happy to report that my film BEAUTIFUL TREE, SEVERED ROOTS, a documentary feature film about my family in Kenya, is now finished.  It took about 25 years -actually longer – to research and make.  As always, the problem was lack of money, but a greater issue was trying to figure out how to tell this amazing story.  Why would anyone be interested in seeing a 70-minute long film about my family?  What’s so special about US?

Nothing really.  But my parents were Jewish refugees who arrived in Kenya in 1942.  Very few Jews saw Kenya as a destination during World War II, but Mama had always wanted to “explore those areas in the atlas that were still white – terra incognita” – and she and Papa had the guts and the gumption to actually get themselves to Kenya.  Not only that, but they devoted their lives to fighting against hunger, poverty and disease.  My dad was Chairman of Freedom from Hunger for years, and he also founded the Animal Health and Industries Training Institute (AHITI) in Kabete, which became a world model.  So those are interesting stories, on the surface.
What fascinated me most, however, was how these Jews from Poland and Romania adapted to Africa almost overnight.  They were not in any way religious – we know very little about being Jewish – and they had had to escape from Romania on the eve of the Germans’ arrival – but it seemed as though they had an instinctive understanding of the African paradigm.   Papa even loved to dress up as an African “witch doctor” – mixing artefacts and costume elements from many African countries and painting his body dark brown with shoe polish – but it wasn’t just a joke.  He keenly felt the African spirit and more than that, he saw African culture and social systems as in many ways far superior to our western ways.  He once wrote that “a piece of land and an extended family have more value than a bank account.”

So my story is really an examination of how each family member relates to Africa and Africans.  It’s also a story of my coming of age just as Kenya was reaching towards Independence in 1963.  Far from rejoicing with everyone else, I was utterly miserable because every single one of my friends in Kenya had hurriedly left the country for fear of a bloodbath.  I attended the Independence ceremonies with my parents and came home that night feeling that I was a refugee in my own country.

The film includes some fascinating archival footage, by the way.  Remember Queen Elizabeth II coming n 1952, just after she had been made Queen?   Remember the fireworks at Independence, and the Kenya National Anthem being played for the first time?  Remember the assassination of Tom Mboya and Bruce McKenzie- both very close friends of my parents?  It’s this archival footage that helped me to piece together the story of our family and of Kenya as we knew it.

And not only that:  to find Kenya again in my own heart and realize that I never really left.  Physically, yes, but mentally, no.  So now I’m planning to reconnect and will be in Kenya in January and February.   I am so excited!!

More later,

Kuaheri kuonana

 

 

 

 

SEAHORSES IN ZIMBABWE

Posted: August 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

In one day, we have driven all the way from Kande Beach on the shore of Lake Malawi, across the northern neck of Mozambique and into Zimbabwe, where suddenly, the landscape shifts from the flat, dull bush and extremely poor huts of Mozambique to a softly greened, rolling landscape of hills and plateaus strewn with huge boulders. These kopjes – the Afrikans word for the bouldered hills – are actually the remains of magma that was spewed up from the center of the planet millions of years ago and settled in great fields, hills and valleys of granite under the earth’s crust. With time, rain and wind eroded the surrounding earth away to reveal these fluid streams of rock that remind me of great muscles trapped in time. With fluctuating cold and warm weather, the granite cracks into huge boulders which sometimes tumble to the earth. Sometimes, the granite base has eroded irregularly, forming extraordinary sculptures of balanced boulders that look as though they might topple over at any moment but have stood like sentinels for untold eons.

We have been chasing the rain as we head south and the vegetation delicately covers the land in a thousand shades of green. I have rarely seen Africa look so gently inviting, and I feel an urge to yell for the truck to stop so that I can run out and climb one of those hills. I resist, because I know that we will have the opportunity when we go on an early-morning game drive the next day.

All day long I stare out of the window, enthralled. The land seems empty. In Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, the roads are lined with small shanty towns, market stalls, bus stops and people, people, people. Even at 4am, when we left Dar es Salaam, there were crowds of people hurrying to catch buses while huge trucks carrying oil, copper and stone bullied their way through the traffic. There was a sense of tremendous energy, of burgeoning commerce and always, the laughing chatter of the African people. But Zimbabwe seems empty. I stand up in my seat to see whether there are villages hidden in the bush near the roadside, but I see none. Here and there a compound of tidy huts with beautifully made thatched rooves, that is all.  With Mugabe in power, it seems that half the population has left and the other half is hiding somewhere over the horizon.

Our campsite is a magnificent place cleverly located among huge boulders, near a lovely lodge actually built onto the rocks and utilizing some of them as its walls and floors. Walking on rocky outcrops is one of my favorite passtimes in the bush and very early the next morning, I am up to walk with the baboons, whose fur glows golden in the haze of sunrise. A tame cat from the lodge follows me, oblivious of the baboons, and rubs herself against my feet. I sit on a high rock with her on my lap, watching the kopjes come to life as the sunlight creeps over this boulder here and illuminates a crevice between those boulders there. It is the most beautiful morning I have ever witnessed and I realize how much I have craved this silence. It is like a prayer not sent up to the gods of the skies, but sent down as a gift to me, and I say thank you.

The next day, we are picked up by Ian, our guide for a game tour and a genuine “bush baby” – a lean, handsome man, a least six feet five inches tall, with close cropped hair and smiling green eyes. He is a licensed hunter and guide, authorized to walk in the bush and carry a firearm, and he has been doing this since he was a boy. He is the stuff of all those romance novels about sexy ladies in Africa falling in love with white hunters.

I sit in the front with him and we find much in common: the bush, for one, where I am completely at home. Our love of Africa and the African people; our passion for African history; and our great sorrow at the loss of indigenous African cultures, for we both recognize how much wisdom and knowledge has been literally usurped, cast out by Christianity and industrialization. Ian is the only person I know other than myself who feels that, in many ways, the African is more sophisticated and better developed than we whites. “They ‘developed’ as far as they needed for happiness and survival,” he says. “They are completely adapted to their environment, and when it comes to the crunch – when our western world comes crashing down – guess who will be smiling and surviving while we struggle to figure out how to make a camp fire.”

Ian has had a very hard time in Zimbabwe, like everyone else and in particular, the white population. He tells me that during the worst period, gas coupons were the only viable form of currency, and were traded for food. He actually had to go out and hunt for food for his family and staff. Mugabe’s regime ousted most white land-holders, using murder and cunning new laws to rob settlers of their land, thus turning what had formerly been Africa’s bread basket into a nation not only unable to feed itself but also unable to maintain its own currency. All transactions are handled in US dollars. The only problem is that no one has any change – you pay in dollars, you get worthless Zimbabwe dollars back in change. If you’re lucky, you get South African rand which are useful if you happen to be going to South Africa, as I am, or Botswana, but which are otherwise a downgraded currency here. So when you buy an ice cream, they will say it costs “One dollar and fifity cents,” but if you pay with two dollars, they can’t give you change and they don’t accept small change, so you either have to buy one and a half ice creams or pay the two dollars and forget the change. And so it goes.

Ian takes us to a cave where there are bushman rock paintings, many thousands of years old. It is hidden away amongst the boulders, known only to him and the local people, and I am thrilled at this great secret he has revealed to us. They are at least 40,000 years old, depicting giraffe, antelope and the fat-bottomed bushmen themselves, glowing red and ochre on the rock. An artist’s hand, without doubt, with shading and lines and an effect of thunderous movement. The pigments are from plants mixed with bile, forming an acid that has etched the paintings into the rock, thus preserving them over centuries. Ian points out the “spirit figures” of a man and a woman at the cave’s entrance, painted there, probably, to protect the work.

Although Ian is white, he refers to himself as a Matabele and speaks the language fluently. He is a genuine “white African” who has spent little time outside of Zimbabwe and is considered to be one of the best guides in the world. He shows us many herbal plants and although we don’t see any “big” game, his sharp eyes spot a golden orb spider, a bright green chameleon and many other smaller creatures even from the moving vehicle. He is determined to find us some rhinos and takes us on a thrilling hike that winds through the bush, up and down several kopjes and along a dry river bed as he examines tracks and sniffs the air. It is getting dark and we must head back to the jeep without spotting any rhinos, and Ian is visibly disappointed and feels he has let us down.

The next day, Ian takes us to a Shona village . This is the kind of thing I loath – a bunch of tourists traipsing around some poverty-stricken village where the inhabitants do a little dance for us, display their rather poorly made artefacts for sale and expect lots of tips. I feel embarrassed and out of place, although I know that our money is badly needed. Ian says that buying artefacts is better than handing over money, and so I search for some little thing that might take my fancy. I am trying hard not to spend extra money, as Zimbabwe is incredibly expensive. So far, I have found nothing on the trip to compare with Kenyan artefacts, either for diversity or beauty, so I cast my eye wearily over the shiny bowls and rather ugly sculptures spread out on the ground. Aha! Now here’s a thing: an odd little carving of wood that, on first glance, looks like the head of some animal with a long tongue reaching down to meet a tail that resembles that of a rattle snake. It charms me and Ian tells me that this is Nyame Nyame, the goddess of all waters.

I purchase it for eight dollars, about twice what it’s worth, and string it around my neck where it lives for the next few days until we reach Victoria Falls. This is an ugly place of fast-food restaurants and travel agents, built around the magnificent falls for the sole purpose of feeding the tourist industry and for the first time, we encounter hordes of Germans, Italians, and overlanders like us and I can’t wait to get out. I dutifully walk to the falls and wander around the viewing points, which are mercifully free today of other tourists – perhaps because the water is very high from the rain and the mist and spray fill the sky, reducing the view to a foggy white haze. And so I am almost alone and enjoy getting thoroughly drenched as I gaze out over the cataracts and listen to the “great smoking thunder” as the falls are known locally.

On my walk back into the town, several men stop me with “Hallo! How are you today? Where do you come from?” and I have learned to simply say, “I am not buying anything and I would like to walk alone,” which they respect. One of them sees my Nyame Nyame and offers me one made of bone, which I refuse. “It is a sea horse,” he says. “Nyame Nyame is the god of the sea and rides a horse, so it is a sea horse.” I am puzzled by this story, and recall that somewhere along the way, I had seen little key chains in the shape of beaded sea horses being sold on the roadside. What did sea horses have to do with Zimbabwe, I wondered, so far from the sea?

I looked at my Nyame Nyame more closely and saw that its shape does indeed, resemble a sea horse. But another tour guide explained to me that this is simply a misinterpretation by illiterate people, none of whom could have ever even seen a sea horse. Somewhere along the way, the myth has become distorted and changed. The head of my little wooden carving is supposed to be that of a tiger fish, with very sharp teeth, attached to the tail of a snake which loops up to rejoin the back of the head.

On a boat trip along the Zambezi River, I get into conversation with a very educated young African. “So what is Nyame Nyame?” I ask.  “She is the god and the goddess of all waters,” he explains, “revered by the Togo people who live along the river. The Zambezi River divides Zambia from Zimbabwe, but the Togo refuse to recognize any international boundaries and as long as they are in their canoes on the river, they can pass freely from one side to the other, from one country to the other. ”  I can see  shrines to Nyame Nyame all along the river.

It turns out that when the Italians wanted to build the Kariba dam, they had neglected to consult Nyame Nyame, who is represented locally by a chief. When the chief at that time approached the Italians, asking what would happen to his people, who would be flooded out of their homes by the dam, he was dismissed. Not long after that, the river rose to unheard of heights and stopped construction on the dam. A bridge was completely destroyed. The Italians rebuilt it and the chief approached them again, but again, he was dismissed, his concerns deemed insignificant. Soon a raging flood took the Italians by surprise, causing the death of 86 Italian workers, most of whom were buried in the still wet concrete and became part of the damn they were building. Now the Italians began to pay attention and eventually, it was agreed that the Togo would be relocated to higher ground, and that as many animals as possible would also be saved before the dam was completed. The Kariba dam was built and still supplies electricity to Zambia and Zimbabwe – and Nyame Nyame is not only satisfied that his work was done well but is also represented today by a chief in Parliament who must be consulted on all matters to do with water.

Tiger fish, snake or sea horse…does it matter? What I know is that it is the power of belief that moves mountains. Belief itself is the clue, not the material symbol of it. And so I remove my Nyame Nyame from around my neck for I feel that perhaps it is a sacrilege, this silly thing made for tourists, and I ought to have more respect for it. I call Ian to thank him for the terrific day he gave us, and without my saying a word, he asks me if I am still wearing the talisman. “No, I took it off,” I say. “Good thing,” he replies.  “We’ve had enough rain – we don’t anyone monkeying around with it now.” I laugh but he stops me. “I’m serious,” he says. “You don’t fool around with this kind of thing. You’ve lived in Africa long enough – you should know this.“

He’s right. I have lived in Africa long enough and I do know these things. “So what should I do with it?” I ask Ian. “Pack it away,” he says. “It’s not yours to wear or play with. Keep it safely somewhere and if you ever come back to Zimbabwe, throw it in the river where it belongs.” Ian agrees to do this for me if I send him my Nyame Nyame. “Trust me,” he says. “You’ll be doing all of us a favor.”

I do trust him. He is, after all, a true White African while I am but an envious shadow. I will do what he says and hope that my little Nyame Nyame may swim like a sea-horse, to and fro, until it finds a resting place on the floor of the Great Zambezi, there to work its wonders forever.