‘Africa’ is a word that has cultivated powerful imagery in the blank slate of my gray matter since childhood. For years, hearing the continent’s name spoken aloud was enough to conjure deep green rainforests alive with the chatter of insects, rolling desert sand dunes sheltering sidewinders and scorpions, lonely wildebeests roaming tree-fringed savannahs, and sprinting cheetahs, lean and panting in the tall, hot grass. The word also hinted at proud people clothed in colorful textiles, wearing stunning beadwork, towers of metal bracelets, anklets and necklaces, and releasing primal voodoo chants amidst chaotic drumming.
My first indirect exposure to the continent came from the contents of my father’s suitcases each time he would return from business trips to Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Angola, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and South Africa to name a few of the African countries he visited. I could hardly stand the anticipation as he would lay the hard case on the floor and open the two metal snapping locks, one on either side of the bag’s molded plastic handle, to reveal the bounty of presents within.
My dad often brought my mother gifts of jewelry from Africa. I remember a gold cuff bracelet carved with intricate ram’s heads, and I recall polished jade, thick strands of wire-like elephant hair, and brightly beaded bangle bracelets. He liked to bring me dolls in traditional costumes. Some were carved from wood, and one was made of cloth from his turban swathed head to sandaled toes. Others were synthetic and dressed like equatorial Barbie dolls.
The most exciting acquisitions were always the carved masks he unwrapped from between newspaper sheets and folded dress shirts. I was deeply intimidated by these confrontational embodiments of the dark dimensions of human fantasy. Although, I do recollect one mask that had tufts of hair and a mouth and eyes resembling giant Cheerios. That particular guise was enough to pry a quick smile from me each time I walked by it, mounted high on the hallway wall.
My family’s collection of African masks came to a sudden and premature termination when my father determined that not only had he brought home original woodcarvings from Africa, but that he had also imported a wealth of wood-boring insects – including termites – that were not as welcome in the house. So, that was the end of the masks, and the end of my liaisons with the obscure and mystical faces of Africa in the dark passages of my very own home.
The only direct claim I have to Africa up until this point of my life was a brief trip I made to Tunisia with my mother in the late 1970s. I don’t remember too much of this adventure except playing with the life-sized pieces of the giant chess set near the pool at our hotel, and seeing my mother sip Campari at the empty hotel bar like a person I had not met yet.
In Tunisia, I was just a kid with my hair in pigtails, wearing bright colors and bellbottomed corduroy pants. However, I attracted the attention of a couple men in the medina who demanded to know how many camels it would take for my mother to sell me. I was convinced that at some point in the near future, the offers of wealth would be intoxicating and my mom would hand me over in exchange for several dromedaries. As my paranoia reached a fever pitch she had to ask me in all seriousness where she would possibly house a herd of camels in our small flat in London. The logic of that impossibility eventually brought me back down to earth.
And here I am, still on the same planet, and in two days I leave for my own encounters with Africa.
This time I will not experience the continent through gifts from my dad that merely hinted at the riches in history, culture, and geography. Nor will I visit in the safety of my mom’s shadow as she shields me from wealthy camel herders, holds me tight on horseback (although I was sulking the whole time we rode on the beach because she wouldn’t let me ride a camel instead), or haggles for me in the souk with a vendor for a thick, woven tunic that I then refused to take off.
From our small ship I will experience the entire West Coast of Africa from Cape Town, South Africa to Lisbon, Portugal. The first leg of the voyage will go from Cape Town to Dakar, Senegal and from this western point the ship then meanders through the Cape Verde and Canary Islands, up the coast of Morocco, and into Europe.
It will be a journey of over 6,000 nautical miles embedded with new sights, sounds, smells, flavors, wildlife and smiles. I hope to write frequently of the experiences and will try to capture the essence of each day in a few photographs to share with you here.
Maybe I’ll even bring back a few carved masks – free of termites.