Thursday, 10 July 2008
Explorers at the edge of independence
If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don't want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.
Iona tends to attract the rugged individualist that Scotland is archetypically full of. Well, was full of. The nanny welfare state of the 20th century has pretty much driven that spirit completely out of this world by providing people with the ludicrous idea that a life guaranteed by the state is a good life. Ask that to the people of the most successful nanny state in the world, in Sweden, where you can work 35 hours a week for a part of your life and live the rest completely guaranteed by the government. The suicide rate is astronomical. I am reminded that, man does not live by bread alone...
Actually most of the truly unique individuals from my country of birth, well known for their contributions to science, exploration or art did not stay long in it. The dour weather and the bleak landscape drove many away in search of better times as well of course as lack of money. Great Britain was great because it expected people to carve out their own lives in the great 19th century, when I should have been born. When I checked in at the reincarnation office I must have been drunk, because I got the century of my rebirth completely wrong. Actually I have never thought reincarnation a very smart idea at all. It may seem easy to believe to many but for me it is just a lame idea, even if the Druids did take it seriously. To be born into a world of crazed shoppers in small percentage, balanced by starving millions scraping the Earth who squat under luxury aircraft high above in which wealthy humans complain about the wine and watch movies has always struck me as, well, insane. As a pilgrim on the road it always used to get to me that even in dirt poor communities in Mexico for example, massive trucks transporting Coca Cola drove into villages where people could barely get by and unload their sugar drink on unsuspicious locals. They would all soon get addicted..
One day in a far off land I saw the humerus of a man who had turned that absurd economic equation on its head. He had left wealthy Great Britain and stayed in dirt poor villages most of his life, eventually dying in one. He too saw the rampant injustice of an insane world but was born in the right century, in 1813 actually. In those days slaves were still a very big part of the world's economic equation. And they came mostly from Africa-where I was looking at the gnawed arm bone of David Livingstone in a museum in a town named after him, in Zambia. Standing there with only a small bag as my total possessions at the age of 21 I read the story displayed under the glass case in which his obviously damaged upper arm bone hung, a terrible reminder that the work of a missionary can come with great cost.
It was at Mabotsa that Livingstone had his famous encounter with the lion. Lions were numerous in this locality, and the villagers were terrified because, as they said, "The lion, the lord of the night, kills our cattle and sheep even in the daytime." Livingstone knew that if he could kill one of the lions, the others would flee. So, taking his gun and telling the people to bring their spears, he led the villagers on a lion hunt in which he almost lost his life. Seeing an enormous lion behind a bush, he aimed and fired both barrels. While he was reloading, the lion suddenly sprang toward him. He says of this attack, "The lion caught me by the shoulder and we both came to the ground together. Growling horribly, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat." Seeing several natives approaching to attack him, the lion sprang upon two of them, biting one in the thigh and the other in the shoulder. But at that moment the bullets the great beast had received took effect and he fell dead. Livingstone had eleven tooth marks as permanent scars and the bone at the top of his left arm was crunched into splinters. The imperfect setting of this bone produced a stiff arm and caused much suffering the rest of his life.
Though I was a penniless pilgrim on my way from Cairo to Capetown, and now in the fifth month of my journey, the world I was born into had produced less and less men like Livingstone and more and more like George Bush, i.e. cowards who pontificate about freedom and courage but who hide behind speech writers and wealthy patrons from Texas who buy elections. How many truly great men have been born in my troubled generation? One. And he was from Africa. Nelson Mandela, who had 400,000 people recently attend his 90th birthday in London. Now I wonder why they all showed up? The world's most bankable movie star, another black guy called Will Smith, was by Nelson's side because he knew that even if your movies sell out every independence day in the US, it is no substitute for having a real character.
The reason I was in Africa in the first place was that I had realised at the age of three (really!) that I had been born a hundred years too late and that all the great adventures had already been accomplished, all the lost worlds already discovered, and all the best stories already told. It is something like being offered sex by a woman who has just been in bed with all of your friends. Why bother? I was a good deal more jaded as a young man then in 1973 than I am now, because at that tender age of 20 when I set out to conquer Africa without money I still did not know that the outside world is not what matters at all. It is the invisible world of the human soul that does. Change that and everything changes..
David Livingstone (19 March 1813 – 1 May 1873) was a Scottish Congregationalist pioneer medical missionary with the London Missionary Society and explorer in central Africa. He was the first European to see Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls), to which he gave the English name in honour of his monarch, Queen Victoria. He is the subject of the meeting with H. M. Stanley, which gave rise to the popular quotation, "Dr Livingstone, I presume?"
I pulled into Livingstone after I had left my trusty Indian shawl draped over a piece of string tied between two trees. Behind those trees was a constant roar and a huge cloud of vapour hanging in the sky because I had decided to camp right next to the spot where the Zambezi river hurtled downwards at Victoria falls. I figured that nobody would steal something so slight as that shawl and in a location a little too close to the edge for comfort. Amazingly, unlike Niagara falls for example, there are no walls or barriers at Victoria falls so you could easily fall over the falls. That was what attracted my hungry young soul. I wanted to sleep listening to that roar and to actually feel the earth tremble inside my makeshift tent.
It was lonely there for sure but then I was used to the loneliness by now having slept in the bush alone for very many of the nights I had been walking and hitchhiking from Egypt where I had stared at the sphinx for hours, Sudan (Oh Darfur! The shame of humanity as the nanny world government, the UN and all the kings men are powerless to save women and children from daily rape and murder!), Ethiopia, where I had an epiphany under duress of near death with Typhus, Kenya, where a black beauty and her five year old son had slept with me on the ground surrounded by hyenas barking that hysterical laugh of theirs, (thankfully her son Omundi went to sleep early that night...) Tanzania, where driving the land rover of a man injured in an attack with a steel pipe to his head and who needed me to help him continue South through safari parks, where hitting elephants or scared running giraffes was the main danger on the road, into a jail in Malawi where I was held for being a suspicious foreigner on the day the president came through the town I was innocently walking through, into no man's land of three hundred yards between Malawi and Zambia having been deported by one and refused, of course by the other, and now finally after many explanations and interrogations and feeling pretty hungry I walked into Livingstone to sell a French Bible somebody had given me.
A French Bible in Zambia? I might as well try to sell bikinis to Islamic fundamentalist women in Yemen! But I had to try, and so I used my wits as usual and headed for a bookstore.
African women have astonishingly beautiful teeth. I did not have a toothbrush in my little bag because I used the local equivalent, the branch of a particular tree that when chewed at its end becomes an excellent tooth whitener too. She looked at the unkempt and skinny Scotsman ask her sheepishly if the shop might buy this Bible. I explained I had no money and needed to eat. She told her assistant to look after the shop and immediately took me to the local market where she bought me a brown bag full of food and gave me back my French Bible. At first she had thought about taking me home to cook me dinner but I guess it was just too risky. I would definitely have loved to go home with that black beauty. Instead I ate by the roaring falls with a candle to see by, alone but happy at least that I was exercising my independent spirit in the best way I could figure out at that age. In Ethiopia I had been inspired by the tales of another great Victorian, Sir Richard Francis Burton who had actually discovered the source of the Blue Nile that Livingstone was also looking for. I had been deeply fascinated with the peculiar idea of entering a Coptic Christian Monastery on the island in Lake Tana. Strange isn't it? At that time I did not know that the Copts, those Egyptians who had embraced Christianity from Egypt and Ethiopia were to become a huge historical influence on both the Celtic christians who ended up in Iona, as well as a much more economically powerful and revolutionary group of men called the Knights Templar. But that is another story.