Thou Shall Not Live: A Nigerian Woman’s Guide to Avoiding Rape



Sometime last year, I was wrapping up work for the day when an ex hit me up to check in and ask what I would be doing after work. I said I was going to see a male friend who lived close to my office. Said friend had invited me over to come play some game online that he thought I would enjoy. When I said that to the ex, he expressed a measure of discomfort in a manner that annoyed me. What was his business if I was hanging out with some other guy? Weren’t we over?

I did go to the friend’s house. We played the game and it was alright. But I didn’t speak to the ex for a whole month. Mind your business let me mind mine. When we finally spoke a month later, he explained that his reservations that night stemmed from having heard so…

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We Should Stop Researching Sub-Saharan Africa

What does Sub-Saharan Africa mean?

In practice, ‘Sub-Sahara Africa’ (SSA) refers to all of Africa except the five predominantly Arab states of North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt) and the Sudan, a north-central African country.

Is it a geographical term?

What does ‘sub’ mean in this context? Is it ‘under’ the Sahara Desert or ‘part of’/‘partly’ the Sahara Desert? Or, presumably, ‘partially’/‘nearly’ the Sahara Desert or even ‘in the style of, but inferior to’ the Sahara Desert, especially considering that there is an Arab people sandwiched between Morocco and Mauritania (northwest Africa) called Saharan?

At 3.6 million square miles (9.4 million square kilometers), the Sahara, which is Arabic for “The Great Desert,” covers large sections of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia. So parts of the Sahara are in SSA? As a geographical term it is increasingly inaccurate and too fluid as a classification. It is a similar classification to ‘Tropical Africa’ (TA) which is defined as SSA excluding the South Africa.

We cannot escape the fact that both classifications (SSA & TA)  are geographically inaccurate and attempt to classify the sections of the continent mostly inhabited by black people.

Map of Africa by Climatic Differentiation


Why These Classifications Are Redundant

When researching SSA or TA in a  sociological context, these classifications presume a homogeneity of black experience. However, Africa is generally considered to be the most diverse continent – linguistically, sociologically, genetically and even geographically. I admit that there may be some good reasons to restrict scientific studies to certain geographical demarcations, but the case has not been exhaustively made to apply similar distinctions to sociological research.

What Africa Should We Research?

How we define Africa has long been the preoccupation of writers of and in Africa. Georg Hegel said of Africa and Africans:

‘The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality-all that we call feeling-if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mahommedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings the Negroes within the range of culture… it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it-that is in its northern part-belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but, as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia. Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.’


Studying SSA or TA accords to Hegelian ideas about Africa i.e. that Africa is backward and North Africa is not African but Asiatic or European. There is also a risk of ignoring the non-SSA sections of the continent. Sociological research on the continent should focus on the needs and wants of the whole continent, it should reflect the voices of the continent, it should be ethical, it should be divorced from the Hegelian and the colonial library, it should be as diverse as the continent.

Studying Sub-Saharan Africa as a category, obscures historical racial evaluations behind a facade that pretends to objectively be contemporary and only about geographical demarcations. It is a magician’s sleight of hand, a misdirection.

There are many Africas to be researched; there is the idea of Africa that exists in the writings of Hegel, and is contrasted with the writings of Nkrumah and Garvey. There is the political Africa – all 54 states that can be researched separately or by reference to regionalism or sub-regionalism. There is the scientific space of floral and fauna, of earth, and water and skies. Then there is the heart of Africa, evident in the lives of Africa’s people. The heart of Africa lies in the daily struggles that birth resilience into a world devoid of hope, the heart of Africa lies in historical trauma that births love for a world yet unborn.

Absence, Distance, Remembrance and Silence in the African Thesis

The question of representation has increasingly become mainstream. Africa presents a particular challenge to issues of representation. Representation in this context is ‘the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone’ or ‘the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way’. Academic, fictional and media representation is important because without accurate and dignified representation, the voice, visibility and validity of a people are distorted.

The people who are thus harmfully represented begin to doubt the validity of their experiences. Furthermore, other people will find it difficult to engage with the real person when all they have seen previously is the stereotype. Therefore our collective vision and ability to engage with the world is damaged. Africa has long been the site of silence and absence. This has been termed epistemic violence.

G C Spivak defines epistemic violence as the violence of knowledge production; epistemic violence includes the distortions, stereotyping and generalizing of conditions, as if all Africans are all homogeneously belaboured, lacking agency and needing saving. Spivak developed and applied Foucault’s term ‘epistemic violence’ to describe the destruction of non–Western ways of perceiving the world, and the resultant dominance of the Western ways of perceiving the world.

I posit here that there are 4 ways in which epistemic violence is visited upon Africa, both from within and without – Silence, Absence, Distance and Remembrance.



There are few African voices in mainstream media, fiction and academia. From Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to contemporary publishing restrictions, from Hegel to limitations preventing African academics access to the rest of the world, African voices have often been silenced or distorted. Wa Thiong’o makes the argument that all prizes for African fiction are for work written in non-African language. A large swathe of African works will not qualify on both content and format.



If you google the words ‘African History’ you will receive information mainly on slavery and colonialism. Post-colonial African history can be traced back approximately 56 years from 1960. Colonial African history, which includes the Mandate system, lasted from 1860 till circa 1960, a period of 100 years. Organised political Precolonial African history has been recorded as far back as 3500BC. Civilisations sprang up in West, East and Central Africa around 2000BC – over 4000 years ago. The Transatlantic slave trade (that most vicious of human endeavours) started circa 15th century. African history is therefore wrongly defined by colonialism or slavery. The first women leaders in the world were mostly African. Queen Amina was a 16th century monarch in present day Nigeria. Rwanda has the most gender balanced parliament in the world. But when you study the world it is implicitly understood that Africa is excluded. If you wish to study Africa, you must study it as an exceptional case.



Considering the ease and lack of remorse with which the slave trade was conducted, the distance between the rest of the world and Africa (figuratively and physically) remains enormous. I can remember reading novels as a child where the protagonists would wake up in London and decide to fly to New York that same day and get there! At the same time, I knew of people who had been trying to go to the USA for ten years. Everyday we hear of Africans drowning as they try to leave Africa. You can hardly go to a conference outside Africa, where an African academic was unable to attend due to visa problems, except there is no African in potential attendance in the first place.



The worst failure in the representation of Africa has been in reference to memory. Africa’s rich history has been forgotten. The Transatlantic slave trade has no historical counterpart in its level of destruction – it was predicated on the dehumanisation of an entire race, it lasted 4 centuries, it is the first form of globalisation and its cultural, sociological and economic aftershocks still reverberate. Yet we fail to reference it or repair the damage. It is a forgotten wound, gaping and ulcerous.

Colonialism again was predicated on the presumption that Africa’s precolonial structures were inadequate and inferior. Congo was visited by enslavement and dismemberment by the Belgians. German genocide of the Herero is wilfully swept under the carpet. British torture in Kenya is frequently trivialised. France was known to have enslaved many Africans and used African women as an inducement for their soldiers. France still has the first right to buy or reject any natural resources found in the land of the Francophone countries. Portugal were the first to colonise and the last to leave (1985) and practised strict racial segregation. It continues to be blindly argued that colonialism brought more good than evil, this argument ignores the fact that the so-called ‘good’ would have come to Africa anyway as states that were not colonised exist. The ‘good’ of Westernization is seen in them too. Imagination has the potential to limit our possibility; it also has the potential to explode our possibility.


The contemporary idea of Africa is made from silence, characterised by absence, viewed at a distance and is replete with lost memories.

Can Pan-Africanism Save Us? A short note

Pan-Africanism: it is a belief that African peoples, both on the African continent and in the Diaspora, share not merely a common history, but a common destiny. This sense of interconnected pasts and futures has taken many forms, especially in the creation of political institutions. “We the African people are our own liberators and thinkers whose task is to make a mighty stride towards genuine freedom by any means necessary.”

These ideas are referenced in Elumelu’s Africapitalism which is defined as the positive role the private sector must play in Africa by making long-term investments in strategic sectors of the economy in a way that creates and multiplies local value in order to accelerate and broaden prosperity throughout the continent and around the world. Africapitalism calls for a new kind of capitalism – a version in which Africa leapfrogs other models, creating a more broad-based and sustainable economy.

The history of Africa has been characterised by massive swings in political thought. The anti-colonial and initial postcolonial movements were concerned with imagining Africa as a refinement of its precolonial past. Due to postcolonial troubles, SAP etc, current intellectual political thought is concerned with imagining Africa as a pale imitation of neo-liberal structures.

However,  little attention has been paid to the role of informal sector in fostering growth and creating jobs. In fact, the informal sector contributes about 55 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP and 80 per cent of the labour force. Nine in 10 rural and urban workers have informal jobs in Africa and most employees are women and youth.

The beauty of the informal economy is that it reflects everyday realities and is divorced from the strictures of neo-liberalism. The informal economy involves practices, knowledge and values that are related to, and grow out of, local and community circumstances. On the other hand, the dominant discourse is that indigenous practices are outmoded, archaic and out of tune with modernity.

But as Siyanda Mohutsiwa states quite succinctly, social media has finally given Pan-Africanism a new voice. The world and Africa would do well not to ignore this voice. These are our voices.

Can Pan-Africanism save us? Pan-Africanism is us.

Greatest Theme Songs from International Sporting Events

The 2016 Olympics in Rio will hold from the 5th to the 21st of August. I am very much a fan of big sporting events, even when I don’t watch them! I vaguely remember the 1984 Olympics as a memory of a memory; I am also a HUGE fan of music. Therefore, the highlight of any Olympics for me is (or was) the theme music. I want to share some of my favourite theme songs with you.  Let me know what you think. Do you agree with me? Have I left any out?

Barcelona Freddie Mercury & Monserrat Caballé – Barcelona (1987, used in 1992): This is obviously one of my favourites. What is not to like about rock and opera? Barcelona for me was the perfect Olympics. (It was in a good time zone too!) This song is especialy poignant as it was recorded way ahead of time due to Freddie Mercury’s ill health. Just the repetition of ‘Viva’ and ‘Barcelona’ still makes my hair stand on end! Rock and Opera! What more do we want? I like the melody, though I feel it is a bit of an acquired taste. It is not very singable, especially Caballe’s parts. I think this is everything an theme song should be.

Koreana – Hand in Hand (1988) Seoul: This is the first one I can really remember, so it holds a very special place for me. NTA Ilorin played it so much, I was afraid the singers were going to get sore (chuckle!). There is just something about this one that captures the hope that characterised the 80s, the hope for world peace and cooperation that seems so elusive now. That is why listening to this still makes me cry! Lyrics are Simple yet Superb I think. ‘Breaking down the walls that come between us for all time!’ Not too many lines are harmonised, but when they are, they are good. Easy to listen to. Hand in hand was in my head for most of the 90s. It has not a grand, but a sweet majesty.#

Il Divo & Toni Braxton – Time of our Lives (2006): I actually did not hear this till 2007, because I took a break from watching sports. This song was one of the things that drew me back in. Il Divo has always been a favourite of mine, even though ‘popera’ may sometimes be classified as something less valued. This song manages to capture the feeling within sports fans that keeps them coming back for more. ‘We’ll find the glory in the air– for the time of our lives…’ This song has such beautiful harmonies, but what else would you expect from 3 classically trained singers and two pop stars! You would probably not be humming this to yourself often, but you may be tempted to belt it out in the shower. The crescendo into the verse lends so much majesty to here.

Celine Dion – Power of the Dream (1996): This was a very good Olympics for me. The perfect combination of functioning NEPA, time zone and satellite television ensured that I did not miss a second of these games. Sang by Celine Dion, this was the perfect song for the 90s. Perfect lyrics with all the olympiad buzzwords ‘Dream’, ‘Faith’, ‘Inspiration’ etc. Very little on harmonies, but does not detract from the beauty of the song. Very singable, I imagine talent shows of the 90s had people singing this A LOT!!! This was another case of sweet majesty, some crescendos, but there was more majesty in the lyrics than in the melody itself.

Gloria Estefan – Reach (1996): Sung at the Closing ceremony at Atlanta. This song felt like the end of the era. It is a very  Olympic song, featuring the ‘higher, stronger’ from the Olympic motto. The Atlanta Olympics was epic for the world and for Nigeria, so this song captured that epicness. Simple yet so very meaningful lyrics, ‘Just for one moment touch the sky.’ Not many harmonies, but still a solid song. It has a cool relaxing melody. I don’t think the song was meant to be majestic, but more inclined to evoke a sense of nostalgia.

Shakira – Waka Waka (This time for Africa) [2010]: For the first World Cup to be held in Africa, we needed an African song. I like this song because it captures that ‘Coke advert’ feeling of football. I do feel that the theme song should have been sung by an African— but you cannot have everything right? Not much going on with the lyrics…’This time for Africa’. Not much in the harmonies  as well. But the melody is very nice, very zumbarish! I really like the song, but it is limited in its versatility. Though I suspect I am more likely to prefer  older songs.

Whitney Houston – One Moment in Time (1988) Another anthem from Seoul. I really believe that the 80s had the best music! I love the lyrics — ‘Give me one moment in time, When I’m racing with destiny.’ It was song by Whitney Houston so Melody and Majesty are already in the Harmonies. Though truthfully, all you do when listening to this is focus on Whitney’s powerful voice. RIP!!!

Sarah Brightman & Jose Carreras – Amigos Para Siempre (1992): Most of the song is in English, but the Title line is in Spanish. It highlights the spirit of the Olympics which is world peace. If we play together, we are friends, we do not go to war against each other. Brightman and Carreras carry this song very well. Two classic singers in a classic song.They do the song credit.

There is one last song which is not a theme from an event, but from a sporting film. I think it is one of the best of all time. That is Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire for the 1981 film of the same name. It was the official theme for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo,and it was played prior to the start of the men’s 100m race final at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. It has no lyrics, but its majesty resonates with me very deeply. So that is my final pick.

So I Finally Watched Half of Yellow Sun

I was 10 years old the first time I heard about the Biafra war. I can still smell that musty classroom in Ilorin filled with restless children listening as Mrs Onyejekwe skilfully traced the history of Nigeria from precolonial and postcolonial. I had heard of civil wars before, but never knew that Nigeria had had one. When I asked my mum about the war she told me how she went to secondary school in Sokoto because her first choice Ugwolawo was closed because of the war. As time went by I learnt that the war lasted from 1967 till 1970, sparked by indiscriminate killing of Ibos in the North. I read Last Plane from Ulli by Charles Kearey about the adventures of a mercenary British pilot flying for the Nigerian government whose loyalties lie with his mercenary British pilot friend flying for Biafra. I was one of the few people who was privileged to study History in secondary school and I learnt about the refugee camps in Biafra and the images of suffering that brought much sympathy from the outside world.


However, until I read Half of a Yellow Sun, Biafra was not completely real to me. I had read Purple Hibiscus and already believed that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was a genius, but nothing prepared me for the poignancy of HOAYS. It remains one of my favourite books. I also think it is one of the most important Nigerian books. I believe every Nigerian should read it. Knowing how much Nigerians love to read (not!) I was pleased to hear about the film – Nigerians can watch film sha! It has taken a while for me to watch the film adaptation. I think a good job was done.

It is an adaptation so some changes were made. I think the major and most jarring change is the narrative which is very linear. It is a departure from the book. However, I do not mind it. It is everyday life in 60s Nigeria with war looming. It is not white saviour narrative like Tears in the Sun – of which I think every physical evidence should be destroyed. HOAYS is a sad film about how Nigeria was gifted a breakfast of blood and tears which greed and hate precluded us from refusing.

I like the casting, I can’t lie. It had a good mix of Nollywood and Hollywood actors that blended so seamlessly that you could hardly see joins. Nollywood and Hollywood Hakeem Kae-Kazim bridges the gap. It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Gloria Young, Onyeka Onwenu, Anika Noni Rose, Genevieve Nnaji, OC Ukeje, Zack Orji and John Boyega. The only bit of casting I may quibble with is Thandie Newton. She gave a good performance, but for me she was not Olanna.


I think the soundtrack could have been more evocative of that time in Nigeria. I also think the northern scenes were very limited, you only had Auntie’s street and the airport. There was also a lot of anachronistic stew. Ultimately though, I think it is a film about war and real people. There are no winners and losers, just those who die and those who don’t, but all still casualties.


Child, You Are Black

This is not a poem
I have no pretty words
To talk about death, despair and discrimination
This is for those Africans who think their pain is greater…


The same narrative that leaves black bodies

Under the waters of the Mediterranean and the Middle Passage,

Makes black bodies a backdrop for bullets in America,

So African governments act with impunity

They know black lives mean nothing, nothing but dust…

For Africans who think their pain is greater, know this,

They will come for your oil
Come for your gold
Come for your diamonds
Come for your cocoa
Come for your sons and daughters
Come to feel better
But they will never come for you.

Your government reads these scripts,
These scripts of contemptibility
These scripts of degradation and degeneration,
And sells you down the river for more gold in the Rolex
More lead-proofing in the Lexus

And so you run across the waters to paradise
Where you find that you are not Somali, you are black
You are not Naija, you are black
You are not Shona, you are black
You are not a warrior you are black
You learn that you are nothing, because you are black
And that is all you need to win a bullet in the brain


So for Africans who think their pain is greater
You need to see that this is the same death and despair,
The same story that confines us in poverty and pain,
The voice screaming Willie Kimani, should also wail Philando Castile,

We cannot breathe in New York, we are out of breath in Ndjamena,

Death does not kill harder in Libya than in Louisiana
This is not a contest but a war.

All voices need to know this, because
The only one who can say black lives matter
with volume and conviction is you,
For you Africans who say your pain is greater
We already breathe pain and sorrow
We already eat the agony of blackness
This is not a contest
Our pain is the same.

The struggles of Senghor are the struggles of Stokely,

The troubles of Tubman are the troubles of Tambo,
The killing of Nkrumah is the killing of King,

So let raise your voices from Johannesburg to Georgia,

From Lagos to London, from Accra to Anchorage
We are one
We are black.



What Gandhi Taught me About Love and Nonviolence

I was probably about 7 years old the first time I watched the film Gandhi. It still holds pride of place in my film collection, nestled in between The Sound of Music and The Godfather I, II and III sits my worn copy of Gandhi. Close friends have been forced to sit through 3 hours of film as I study every single piece of dialogue and nuance. The film has layers deep as the crevices on the mountain range behind my grandparents house in Okebukun. The message of the film of Gandhi is love and non-violence in the pursuit of human freedom. Nothing I have seen in the many, many years since has convinced me that there is a better path to tread than love in the quest for a better world.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is the burning of the passes. Peace does not mean giving up, ever. If we want to see change, we must keep on pushing till we see it, or die trying.

Using violence loses you the moral high ground. In the speech below he says ‘In this cause, I too am prepared to die… but there is no cause in which I am prepared to kill…They cannot take our self-respect if we do not give it to them…They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me, then they will have my dead body. NOT MY OBEDIENCE!’

Non-violent resistance is persistent. Many struggles have failed because ideals have betrayed and strayed. ‘I want to change their minds, not kill them for weaknesses we all possess.’ When Gandhi fasted India came to a standstill. As he says below ‘In the end, you will walk out. Because 100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians, if those Indians refuse to cooperate.’

Great resistance need great leaders. The protest at Dharasana salt works only succeeded because of great leadership, sacrificial leadership. Such that when the leader was arrested, his guidance continued. We all deserve a better world, but someone has to stand up for it. We have more in common than the things that divide us.

Love Always: The film ends with these lines spoken by Gandhi, ‘When I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it: always.’

Accents By Denice Frohman

my mom holds her accent like a shotgun,

with two good hands.

her tongue, all brass knuckle

slipping in between her lips

her hips, all laughter and wind clap.


she speaks a sanchocho of spanish and english,

pushing up against one another,

in rapid fire


there is no telling my mama to be “quiet,”

she don’t know “quiet.”


her voice is one size better fit all

and you best not tell her to hush,

she waited too many years for her voice to arrive

to be told it needed housekeeping.


English sits her her mouth remixed

so “strawberry” becomes “eh­strawbeddy”

and “cookie” becomes “eh­cookie”

and kitchen, key chain, and chicken all sound the same.


my mama doesn’t say “yes” she says “ah ha”

and suddenly the sky in her mouth becomes a Hector Lavoe song.


her tongue can’t lay itself down flat enough

for the English language,

it got too much hip

too much bone

too much conga

too much cuatro

to two step

got too many piano keys

in between her teeth,

it got too much clave

too much hand clap

got too much salsa to sit still


it be an anxious child wanting to

make Play­Doh out of concrete English

be too neat for her kind of wonderful.


her words spill in conversation

between women whose hands are all they got

sometimes our hands are all we got

and accents remind us that we are still

bomba, still plena


say “wepa” and a stranger becomes your hermano.

say “dale” and a crowd becomes your family reunion.


my mama’s tongue is a telegram from her mother

decorated with the coqui’s of el campo.

so even though her lips can barely stretch themselves around english,

her accent is a stubborn compass always pointing her toward home.

Louise Linton’s ‘Heart of Darkness’: A review

From Chinua Achebe to Binyavanga Wainaina, so much has been said about the pernicious obscuring of African humanity in writing about Africa. The volume and passion of writing in this area means that it is very, very disheartening to see that this type of writing can get published (even self-published) and an excerpt can get space in a ‘respectable’ paper.

Joseph Conrad’s  Heart of Darkness, was much vaunted at the time of publication, but as African writers began to enter into the literary arena, the cracks in his prose were pointed out. In his critique Achebe notes:

Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where a man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality

(Achebe, Chinua. “An image of Africa.” The Massachusetts Review 18.4 (1977): p 783.)

Achebe explains further the dangers in this type of writing, he says it portrays:

Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.  p. 788

And it perpetuates and makes us think only of :

the stereotype image, about its grip and pervasiveness, about the willful tenacity with which the West holds it to its heart; … about books read in schools and out of school, of churches preaching to empty pews about the need to send help to the heathen in Africa…p 792

Binyavanga Wainaina’s piece How to write about Africa, describes Linton’s prose so accurately, it may have been used as a guide.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

But let us take a look at the excerpt as produced by The Telegraph

How my dream gap year in Africa turned into a nightmare (Excerpt from ‘In Congo’s Shadow’)

(She went to Zambia! Not Africa! Not Congo! Why does Congo have a shadow? Why is Congo included in the title?)

Two hours had passed – maybe three. I couldn’t tell. The dense jungle canopy above me had eliminated what little moonlight there was and plunged me into inky blackness deep in the Zambian bush. (I reiterate, she went to Zambia, no jungle in Zambia, it is Savannah, grassland like much of Africa and the rest of the world, no jungle! no jungle at all. Which means that there would be no inky blackness and no bush. Why do we have the word ‘bush’ here? Dictionary meaning = ‘wild or uncultivated country.’ See above about Savannah which is grassland, even when wild, no bush)

I lay very still, listening for the armed rebels and wondering how long it was until daybreak, not knowing if I’d survive to see it. (unnecessary sense of terror)

With my body shaking and my brain frozen with fear, it was hard to remember how I’d ended up there, 6,000 miles from home. An 18-year-old Scot and former pupil of the prestigious Fettes College (contrast the prestige with the wild jungle, bush etc),

I had come to Africa with hopes of helping some of the world’s poorest people. (Because the prestigious Fettes College equips you to ‘help’  all of Africa’s poor. An 18 year old who has the arrogance that she can help Africa. The creators of the instagram account for ‘Sviour Barbie’ want people to “stop treating ‘third world countries’ as a playground for us to learn and gain real life experience from“. Because this story has at its most basic message, how good she is, despite how bad Africa is.)

But my gap year had become a living nightmare when I inadvertently found myself caught up in the fringes of the Congolese War (Which one? the 1996–1997?  or 1998-2003?).

Gunshots echoed through the bush and seemed to be getting closer. I couldn’t imagine the awful, sporadic acts of violence that were being committed as the village was ransacked. Fear and anger for the children consumed my thoughts. Part of me wanted to jump up and make it all stop (And how will you be achieving that? The same way you plan to make all the poor countries rich? By your very presence?), but then I heard shrill screams and shrank back into my hiding place.

As the night ticked interminably by, I tried not to think what the rebels would do to the ‘skinny white muzungu with long angel hair’ if they found me. (I really do not have words for this…)

Clenching my jaw to stop my teeth chattering, I squeezed my eyes shut and reminded myself how I’d come to be a central character in this horror story. (I know! I know! You wrote it?)

I could hear the voice of my mother, Rachel, in my head: her soft Scottish accent always sparks memories of my childhood on the outskirts of Edinburgh, where I grew up with my brother, sister and our many pets – even a boating lake and a secret garden. We had everything we could possibly want and were very happy – until the day when cancer took our mother from us and everything changed forever. She was only 53.

My sister fled to college and then went travelling, while my brother threw himself into work, following in our father’s footsteps in property. Needing my own escape and hoping to continue my mother’s mission to do good works in faraway places, I’d accepted a position as a volunteer at a commercial fishing lodge in Zambia. It was the most remote country on the list I was given and the one most in need. (In need of what exactly?)

“Find a bolt-hole as soon as you get there,” my father pleaded. “Somewhere to hide, just in case.” I’d laughed and assured him I’d be fine but now here I was on the jungle floor, in a fragile minefield of vines crawling with potentially lethal creatures – including the dreaded rain spiders, up to twelve inches across. (DREADED RAIN SPIDERS???? IN ZAMBIA??? OSANOBUA!)

My innocent dreams of teaching the villagers English or educating them about the world now seemed ridiculously naïve. (Why do you want to educate them about the world, do they not live in it? Is there anything you could learn about theirs? Since you obviously did not realise that it was NOT filled with dreaded rain spiders that are a foot long!)

With a cheery smile, I’d waved goodbye to Dad and jumped on a plane to Africa without researching anything about its tumultuous political history or realising that my destination – Lake Tanganyika – was just miles from war-torn Congo. (Ok! that is it! This sentence is filled with so much pernicious stereotyping, it deserves to be the posterchild for that trope. 1. Plane to Africa? There are over 200 airports in Africa, you cannot take a plane to ‘Africa’! She did not research the history of the continent?! If you were going to Madrid, Spain, would you research ALL European history? As for the rest, ok let us look at a picture…)


So she was going to Lake Tanganyika, which was somehow in Zambia and miles from war-torn (everywhere in Africa is war-torn apparently, we need more tailors) Congo (note that she does not specify which Congo, Hint: there are two Congos in Africa). Ok. Shior!

Life was idyllic at first, a gap year student’s dream. My new home was beautiful and I made close friendships with the local Bemba people. I learned some of their language, planted a vegetable garden and created a little school under a Mukusi tree, writing about my experiences in my diary. I was still struggling with the loss of my mother and found special comfort in my bond with Zimba, a six-year-old orphan girl with HIV who called me “Ru-eese”.

(Somehow Bemba-is spoken in Tanganyika which has moved to Northern Zambia. Why not just say Simba? hmm? Revealing someone’s HIV status? Not cool. The people behind the Saviour Barbie instagram say that aid workers should act in the same way they would back home. “For example, nurses in America are not allowed to take Instagram photos of their patients and post emotionally captivating blurbs about how tragic their life is.” They note that in the US, and other Western countries “it was decided that a person’s privacy is more valuable than the need of the caretaker to have an emotional outlet” and the same standards should apply in Africa. )

But I soon learned that Africa is rife with hidden danger. (Since you travelled the whole of the continent???) I witnessed random acts of violence, contracted malaria and had close encounters with lions, elephants, crocodiles and snakes (Boo hoo hoo!). As monsoon season came and went, the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in neighbouring Congo began to escalate and then spill over into Zambia with repercussions all along the lake. Thousands of people were displaced and we heard brutal tales of rape and murder. (Again  pile of misinformation! Hutu and Tutsi conflict in Congo??? Spilled into Zambia? Tell me more, CNN missed that one!)

Then one day, without warning, armed rebels descended on our bay. Taken by surprise, I spent a night huddled with others in an old straw hut, hoping not to be found as we listened to the engines of the rebel boats drawing near. The next morning, I was faced with a dreadful dilemma. Should I stay and care for Zimba, risking my life? Or flee to the safety of my family and break her heart? (Personally I blame the makers of Tears in the Sun) The rebels would surely return and the plane to take me home wasn’t due for several weeks. Torn, I wept for my mother and for myself as I hadn’t wept in years. (Stupid question, I know, but if the plane was not due for weeks, where was the she fleeing too that Simba sorry, Zimba could not go?)

A mail plane arrived unexpectedly a few days later and – with its propellers still rotating – its pilot offered me a ride. But as I made the decision to board, Zimba ran wailing from the village and begged me to stay. So I did, but within days the rebels came again. (Yay! Saviour!) This time, I had no choice but to flee alone in a desperate attempt to stay alive. For hours on end, I remained on the jungle floor with no idea if I would make it or if any of the people I had come to love would survive. During my months in Africa I had become part of the same story that my mother started when she spent time administering medical treatment to the natives of Papua New Guinea as a young woman, but suddenly my story didn’t look like it was going to have such a happy ending.

How had I come to be in such a place and for what? To prove myself worthy of her? She would never have wanted me to end my days like this. That was when I knew, deep in my heart, that it was time to go home. (Such a place??!!)

My time in Zambia, and especially that long night in hiding, is imprinted on my mind now as a defining coming-of-age moment. It was the point at which my appreciation of the fragility of life – already shaped by my mother’s death – was fully realised.

Now that I’m a grown woman living in California and pursuing a very different dream – as an actress and film producer – I know that the skinny white girl once so incongruous in Africa still lives on inside me. Even in this world where I’m supposed to belong, I still sometimes feel out of place. Whenever that happens, though, I try to remember a smiling gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola. Zimba taught me many beautiful words but the one I like the most is Nsansa. Happiness.

White people are not incongruous in Africa, certainly not in Zambia. The problem with this type of writing about Africa is that it denies equal humanity to African people. It reveals that this denial is entrenched, embedded deep in our collective subconscious and may never be overcome. And that is truly sad.