The wires in the fence I was leaning against dug into my back, making it itch. The crickets shrieked in the stunted shrubs and bushes as if complaining about the day’s heat. Even the birds had gone quiet, struggling to find a reason to sing. Worryingly, I noticed how the shadow of the tree I had found refuge under was shrivelling up fast as the sun descended ever higher in the piercing blue of the sky.
I reached out over my shoulder to scratch the itch on my back.
“Fuck!” I cursed, however, when I couldn’t quite get to it. Where the hell was Pieter, anyway? Pushing myself off the fence, I tried to stand up, but even this small exertion left me feeling light-headed.
“I couldn’t live here,” Said Phillip, matter-of-factly, as if someone had asked him to. We had been waiting for Pieter in the scorching heat for almost an hour now and I knew he was as frustrated as me. He was quite an outdoors guy, even more comfortable in the bush than I was. But looking around, I wasn’t one bit surprised by his comment.
Behind the fence laid a small yard covered in sharp, short blades of grass in a shade of green which reminded me not of fresh growth but borderline survival. A few scraggly, thorn-adorned trees unable to provide enough comforting cool were scattered around the yard, and beyond them, on the far side of the clearing, sat the gateman/park ranger.
He sat on a small wooden crate, his dark chocolate skin in stark contrast to the tired blue of the wall behind him. The wall was one of four, forming a simple square with two corrugated iron sheets forming its pitched roof. Overall, the whole structure looked like the most basic house any five-year-old would draw given a colour pencil and a piece of paper.
Was that his house? Was the woman sitting on a log a few meters away — motionless except for when she occasionally swat the flies away — his wife? I imagined myself in his place, sitting on a crate looking at a gate which he only opened up a few times a day but took up his entire life. I imaged spending my nights in that little hut, with the stagnant heat brewing in it, and it occurred to me that that barren yard, that gateman and the suffocating heat were all part of Africa.
It was true that her sunsets, her acacias, and rolling plains had always made me dream and had finally brought me to her. But I could now see that it could just as easily, crush your dreams and replace them with sweat, teething flies and the itch of sand and dirt in your eyes.
I had to learn that Africa wasn’t just a story. It had a life of its own and it would only be written if I started living it.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote that he remembered not a morning when he woke up in Africa and he was not happy. That quote had always a painted an unrealistic, all too perfect picture of the place in my head.
This Africa I was seeing now though, gave me a clue as to why he never talked about his presumably sweaty afternoons in Africa.