My name is Daisy and I am sure that you know absolutely nothing about me. I will introduce myself straightaway. I am African, Kenyan. I love to write letters to people whenever I have something to tell them but I do not know how to reach them. I have something to tell you and that is why I am writing to you. I hope that my letter finds you hale and hearty.
How is California? In case you see Condoleezza Rice, pass my love to her. I adore her.
I am writing this letter because I read about your ghostly stories of Africa in The Telegraph and I was deeply shocked by your experiences. For the most part, I thought you were eighteen years old. You see, when I was 18 years old, there were so many things in life which I did not get right – things I thought I understood when I was actually waxing lyrical. Even when I read that you were 18 about 17 years ago, I said to myself, “perhaps she just lifted this from a journal she wrote when she was 18 – when she didn’t know any better—and the piece has been published unedited.
I read about your nightmare in Africa and for a long time, I struggled to connect your story to the Africa that I know. I scrolled up to see if I was reading a fiction category in The Telegraph and lo and behold, all the things that I was reading were supposed to be facts. At this point, my excitement at your vocabulary use – you know, words like sporadic, interminably and idyllic—started to rapidly wane and get replaced by a feeling that was a mixture of both anger at you and worry for you. So I asked myself, “How was she going to educate villagers about a world she did not understand herself?”
I admire the editor who published your story. What confidence, what guts! How could s/he very confidently publish details that cannot be verifiable? For example, could it be that the whole world missed out on the Hutu-Tutsi conflict when it spilled to Zambia? Rebels? I am also informed that there is no monsoon season in Zambia. Dear editor of Ms. Linton’s story, Africa like the rest of the world, has evolved and since we are living in the information age, ensure you double-check your facts so that you do not get embarrassed.
Well, I eventually got to terms with the fact that you are now 35, that’s a decade and a couple of years older than me. You could be my big sister and in our African values, values that I would not trade for anything including your prestigious school, we are taught to always respect our elders. The elders in Africa know that this respect is earned, not merely given so before I disagree with you publicly and look like a disrespectful child, I want to begin by pledging their indulgence; to make them understand why I am differing very sharply with you. In Africa, we say, “give a dog a name before you kill it”. As you will see, mine is not a callous decision to step out of the good upbringing that I have been afforded as an African native. I just want to state my differences with some of the things that you wrote and hope that in doing so, I will be well understood.
So Ms Linton, I have been living in Africa for slightly more than two decades now. I was born here. You see, I am not at all disputing the fact that there have been wars and calamities in Africa. In fact, I am one of the people who believe that we will one day have a brighter future. But is Africa the only place where we have problems? Are problems the only thing that Africa has? Every part of the world has its own challenges by the way. So for you to try to define the whole of Africa by a singular incident that happened in one corner of the continent, bespeaks the level of disconnect that you actually have to the continent.
Let me also get this out of the way: I have a problem with anyone who uses the name “Africa” interchangeably with that of a specific African country, in your case, “Zambia” to mean the same thing. You do not say that you currently live in the United States of America, you say instead that, you are now a grown woman who lives in California. Do you even know the name of that village you were staying in while in Zambia? Zambia is a country and you cannot know everything about Zambia by visiting one village. As you can see, we cannot even talk about Africa. Not even East Africa. What you did is called stereotyping and one of my favourite writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, says that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue. The problem with stereotypes is that they are incomplete. You have to agree with this.
Another thing that strikes my eyes is the fact that ‘you came to Africa to help some of the world’s poorest and you did so without researching much about the political history of the country. I do not know what I think right now but I have so many questions about this Africa that you visited. Who was hosting you? How were they affected by this war and the rebels? Did they also crawl close to spiders, did they also contract malaria? Did they also have close encounters with crocodiles and lions? Did the organisation you were volunteering for know about these dangers you are talking about while they were inviting you? If they did, what was the survival game plan? At what point did you cut short your gap year? What did that cutting short do to you? Where did this mail plane with rotating propellers suddenly arrive? Was it in the village while Zimba was drinking coke or at an airport nearby? What was the name of this airport? Did the plane come just for you or other people as well? Was it a chartered plane? Did anyone else see this plane? How much English had you taught the villagers by the time you left? What did they tell you they were going to do with all that English? Why did you want to teach all of them English? Weren’t any of them interested in Spanish or Portuguese?
I have to tell you a secret. The closest I have been to a live wild animal is a horse during a race. Is a horse a wild animal? Then I think I have seen one or two baboons. Therefore, when you say that you encountered lions and crocodiles, a part of me envies you. The next time you come, please, let me have these encounters with you. I can get my own visa and ticket; just take me to the places that you visited because I am dying to witness the kind of adventures that you did witness. I assure you, there were no rebels and there is none now so we will be fine.
Here is a short story my Religious Sociology lecturer told me when I was trying to understand why people still flock to some churches even after they have been conned by their pastors. He said that once upon a time, a group of philanthropists visited a village and they pitied the women there for all the kilometres (I think you’d call them miles) that they had to cover just to get water. Without a word, they got plumbers and piped water to a central place that in the philanthropists’ minds would save the women time and energy. Can you, therefore, imagine the shock that these well-wishers received when they realised that the women still went to the stream after a tap was brought right to their doorstep? It is not that the villagers hated the taps. Going to the stream might have looked really hectic from the visitor’s perspective. But for the villagers, these trips to the stream were the times to catch up on the latest stories and discuss issues with friends. They needed the distance to have enough time to talk. That’s why the tap for them was too close for this function. The moral of the story: helping is a good thing, just synchronise with the people you are helping. But yes, I am happy that you came to Africa with the hope of helping some of the world’s poorest people. Did the hope yield any fruits?
Do you still keep in touch with your class?
If I ever read your book, the whole story about your experience, I will review it.
I have a persistent thirst to know things and that has pushed me to read a lot of books and ask questions including stopping strangers on the road to ask them questions about the inspiration behind their hairstyles… Apart from the madness, I am generally a very bubbly, reasonable and energetic person.