The sky is clean, the moon twisted and the temperature zero. Outdoors I would freeze and die. Here in my study, I think of Doris Lessing and the five novels that make up Children of Violence. When I read the first book, Martha Quest, I had the frightening sense that Lessing was writing me into existence and I was locked onto the same path as her heroine. Lessing’s affair with the communist Gottfried Lessing and her abandonment of her children scandalised white Rhodesia. My mother was of Lessing’s generation and a friend of her first husband, but it was I, the daughter who became a communist, like both Lessing and her character and was branded a criminal because of the draconian miscegenation laws in South Africa.
Two years ago we visited Belize and Livingston in Guatemala and encountered Garifuna people for the first time. I was interested to learn how the Garifuna came to live in Central America and still retained the culture of their African heritage, while it seems to me that so many Afro-Americans who endured centuries of slavery have not been able to. What do we lose when we migrate? What do we keep? Why? Is music more permanent than language? Is it easier to retain one’s culture in a ghetto while also more dangerous?
Cultural survival and slavery
Syncretised religions like Santeria in Cuba combine African spirituality with Christianity but Afro-Cubans don’t seem to be as African as the Garifuna. I felt closer to my African home in Belize than I did in Cuba and wanted to know what had made such a difference. The Garifuna, captured as slaves in West Africa, were either shipwrecked on the Grenadines or took over the Spanish slave ships and landed there. They never lived in the Caribbean as slaves but instead as freemen and warriors integrating with the Arawak and Taino.
The Garifuna are currently writing their history. It’s important to analyse and reinvent the past to understand and reshape the world. History written by the victors distorts our present lives and damages our futures even if we believe we’re on the side of the victors. What stories should we tell ourselves? Gilbert Swaso told us that perhaps Africans crossed the Atlantic Ocean before the start of the Slave Trade – the Triangle Trade. I wondered if that would have been possible in dugout canoes even with favourable Trade Winds until I remembered the Kon Tiki expedition on balsa wood rafts from Peru across the Pacific Ocean to the South Seas. ‘Maybe?’ I thought.
My own stories
I invent stories that can be read in different ways. I don’t want to tell people what to think. I can’t claim to know the whole truth about my own life and my memoirs are fragile constructions of uncertain facts. My relationships with people and my world are constantly disintegrating and reforming. All I can do is hope and love.
We were blocked, stopped and stuck at the border between Mexico and Belize for five long hours. It was a strange way to exist – a state of waiting in which nothing happens. We didn’t have the right papers. We were in Limbo, that place of meaningless suspension in which you wait endlessly for judgement on your soul. Being in Limbo changes you. You become passive and remain desperate. A conflicted state of victimhood. You know you are the only person in Limbo even when there are other people around you in the same void.
Leaving home before sunrise is a plunge into an abyss. Black moments before brain functions. A home disguised and hidden under bleak darkness. Cheekbones ache with cold. Nose sniffs up tears. Departure weighs more than a baggage allowance. Loss is heavy and sadness clutches my heart and trips up my feet.
Andy Anderson, a very kind and good friend died recently. I remember him with great affection and gratitude. He was not only a personal friend but a committed supporter of art in Zambia. As an architect, he had a love of design and the visual arts as anyone who visited his beautiful home at Buckridge could see. At his memorial service, I found myself wondering if any of the younger artists in Zambia’s vibrant arts community know about his significant contribution to Zambian art. You can find the memorial service for Andy on Facebook here.