Book ID 434
McFerran, Ann How Africa made a man of my son, 1998
Extract Author: Ann McFerran
Extract Date: 1988 February
'SNAKE,' he said. 'That's what I'd like to eat. Go on, Mum, where else will you eat snake?' Where, indeed, other than the African bush? For that is where I find myself with my 19-year-old son, on the edge of Tanzania's Tarangire National Park on the first day of a 'basic camping' safari. Before our first game drive, our cook has asked what we would like for supper - beef, chicken or snake?
'No,' I reply, firmly. I am up for almost anything: roads so bumpy you bruise your bottom; unnerving grunts and scuffles around my tiny bell tent at night; washing facilities that amount to a trickle of water in a dark hut. But not Snake Supreme.
'Oh, Mum . . . ' My son's eyes narrow, snake-like. 'Live a little.'
At the age of 51, I am torn between total revulsion and a renewed thirst for adventure that has overwhelmed me since I first hit African soil. But our Tanzanian cook, Joseph, looks shame-faced at the prospect. 'Snake is not good meat,' he says. 'Actually, it tastes slightly disgusting.' Perhaps Joseph's bluff has been called, or maybe he is thinking of his tip, but I don't care.
For many months, my son Patrick had been working as a volunteer with a British charity in remote rural Tanzania. His letters home were tantalising: 'On Sunday morning I got up before dawn to meet an African who took me to find gold; we walked for four hours . . . '; 'I went to the nearest town, Tabora, for my birthday and found myself staring amazed at a water tap. I wish you could see this place.'
Tanzania was having a profound effect on him. I wanted to see it for myself. Contemptuous of sanitised, packaged Africa, Patrick offered to act as my guide. He felt that working shoulder to shoulder with Tanzanian villagers building a health centre, living without electricity or running water, where a sought-after invitation was a visit to an elder's mud hut, was closer to 'real' Africa. I wouldn't embarrass him by turning up in his village - we would meet midway, mid-trip.
While booking flights in England, however, I began to understand why expense, time and fear of the unknown combine to persuade people to buy safari and beach packages. Spontaneous travel in Africa, I was made to feel, is for youthful and experienced travellers or the foolhardy. I would compromise: after a short 'luxury tented' safari in the Masai Mara, I would go travelling with my son in Tanzania.
I quickly learnt, however, that in Africa nothing goes according to plan. Twelve hours before my plane left for Nairobi the nightmare fax arrived. 'Patrick has malaria,' it read. 'Please don't panic.' But the details were high-octane maternal panic material: my son was delirious with a temperature of 43 degrees.
On the plane I confided in a Belgian priest returning to the Congo. 'In Africa, men get malaria like women suffer monthly,' he soothed. 'Your son will be fine.' And so it proved, although this entailed a change of plan. We would stay with friends on the Kenyan coast where he would recuperate.
In Nairobi's Norfolk Hotel, amid Americans in starched new safari jackets and expats talking loudly about London theatre, I met my son. He was thin, unshaven and tanned, the reddish dust of Tanzania apparently ingrained in his every pore.
We flew to Mombasa and took a cab through its slums of candlelit huts to a plantation-style house in Kilifi, secured by guards. By a pool in an orchid-filled garden, where giant crabs scuttled and bush babies thumped on the roof at night, he became fit and well, tended by five African house servants. A yachtie haven, Kilifi appeared to be preserved in aspic from the days of pre-independence 'Keenya'.
One week earlier, my son had been hewing bricks with Tanzanians. He felt a deep unease at the huge racial divide between whites and Africans but, still weak from malaria, succumbed to the pampering.
In fact, he straddled both cultures, with an enviable grace. He would joke in Swahili with the African servants, then challenge any white Kenyan assumptions about 'lazy' Africans. One white appeared stupefied at the idea of paying to work as a volunteer in Tanzania. 'How will it help your career?' he demanded. Such sentiments increased Patrick's belief that materialism is destroying Western sense and sensibility. Youthful idealism perhaps, but he argued his case with a surprisingly eloquent maturity.
In the local village, Mnarani, his fairly proficient Swahili earnt him as much respect as his temporary Tanzanian resident status. 'Jambo!' children would cry, exchanges that might culminate with invitations into their huts or stalls.
'You should try to learn more Swahili, Mum,' reprimanded my son, and he taught me the complex litany of an African greeting. At a local restaurant, he ticked me off when I balked at (tough) goat stew. 'You can't not eat,' he insisted. 'In Africa, that's very rude.'
As we shopped in markets, buying second-hand designer clothes (the booty of aid packages), we discussed the contradictions involved in Western aid. He felt I shouldn't give to begging children. 'You'll teach them to be dependent,' he scolded.
We visited Zanzibar in Tanzania and Lamu on the Kenyan coast. Having pronounced Lamu paradise, Patrick then said he felt homesick. Was he really missing London? 'No,' he said, 'Tanzania.'
Days later, in the toffee-coloured glow of the late-afternoon sun, we boarded the huge diesel train from Mombasa to Nairobi. It took 14 hours and cost about £18 each, including a berth and dinner.
Swaying towards the setting sun, served by African waiters in starched white suits, it seemed outrageously romantic. The train was also outrageously bumpy.
I awoke before dawn to a bizarre sight: Africans in Western suits clutching brief-cases running from mud huts to catch our train. They were commuters with office jobs in the big city.
From Nairobi we caught a bus to Arusha, where we could pick up a cheap safari. This way, said Patrick, we would pay less than half of what it would cost pre-booked from England and the money would go straight to Africans.
Arriving two hours late after a puncture, our bus was swarmed by people selling safaris and hotels. One 'budget' hotel we investigated transpired to be a Stalinist-style mausoleum, with cell-like rooms. For the first time I wished we had made a prior booking. We compromised with the Equator hotel (doubles for £30), where my son's resident status earned him a reduction.
In Arusha, safaris range hugely in price and type. Ours was a compromise of age and adventure. Had my son his way and full health, it would have been even more basic, travelling on the back of a lorry. Having just enjoyed luxury camping in Kenya's Masai Mara, I insisted on a middle-range camping safari. In the event, I preferred Tanzania's more spectacular, diverse scenery.
During our safari, Patrick was touchingly chivalrous, escorting me to my tent at night, ensuring I had a torch for visits to the long-drop loo. Watching his first sighting of giraffes and zebras reminded me of his infant self opening his Christmas stocking: unmitigated magic. He howled with pleasure: 'Can we get out?' 'No!' cried the driver and I.
Over campfire dinners, he told me how he felt we had much to learn from Africans, especially their sense of kinship and community. Tanzanians are, on the whole, relaxed and happy.
By contrast, our guide told us how badly many Americans behaved on safari, throwing cans and shouting at elephants. Safaris are a luxury most Tanzanians cannot afford, but Patrick stressed how they gloried in their wildlife and, in particular, the giraffe, the country's national animal.
On our final day, we visited a cultural village in Tarangire's Wildlife Conservation Area, which involved a rollercoaster ride along mud tracks. Skinny cattle finally heralded a Masai village, where we were greeted like visiting royalty, our hands grabbed by women and children. Our Masai guide introduced us to beautiful girls, their babies cradled in kangas; he led us inside a hut that was hot and dark, save for the light of a fire over which a woman stirred a pot.
As the sun set, young men, initially giggling self-consciously, began a rhythmic chant that seemed to explode through their throats as they jumped in the air in perfect unison. We watched, mesmerised. 'Incredible,' whispered Patrick. Later, we sat in silence under the stars - closer and wiser.
Next morning, before rejoining our separate adult paths, I listened to the doves' dawn symphony that echoed the Masai's rhythm and pondered how Africa had transformed my teenage son into a thoughtful young man. One day, maybe, I will return in his footsteps - as a middle-aged, Africa-smitten volunteer.
For details of cheapest fares call Trailfinders (0171 938 3366); currently offering £259 return to Nairobi with Sabina; £335 to Dar es Salaam with Emirates; £413 to Kilimanjaro with Ethiopian Airlines.
Buses and trains are cheap, frequent and generally safe. Details and tips in practical guidebooks such as East African Handbook (Footprint, £14.99).
Arusha has no shortage of tour operators offering five-day safaris from about £50 a day, fully inclusive. One of these, Let's Go Travel, can also arrange trips to the Tarangire cultural village. Phone Arusha (57) 2814; fax (57) 4199.