Le Mal d’Afrique

I first heard this phrase sometime when studying Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the scramble for Africa. For those of you who are non French speakers it translates to the sickness of Africa. I’ve been contemplating this concept and it is hard to describe the feeling. Sickness connotes that it’s a bad thing, a disease or an infection. It’s something you want to cure or get rid of. I don’t think that is accurate or that whoever coined the phrase meant it negatively but it’s the same as the saying “getting bit by the Africa bug.” You don’t ask for it, but it happens and suddenly your perspective is never the same. This excerpt taken from Francesca Marciano’s “Rules of the Wild” (a novel that is about the complete opposite type of expat experience from mine) basically sums it up. It is something that gets a hold of you and the longer I stay I am simultaneously leaving more of myself here and missing myself at home. I will never be the same.


” You have woken up in your bed in the middle of the winter, rain furiously pounding on the mabati roof, and felt like everything including your brain was turning to mould. You hate the idea of being so far away, forgotten by your friends at home, oblivious to the political changes in the world. You are starved for magazines, sophisticated conversation, films and good clothes… kurungu prayer 009You feel as if your entire soul is going under. Everything around you has the bitter taste of decay: the mangoes rotting in the basket, the corrupted policeman at the roadblock who wants a bribe to let you pass, the headlines in the paper about new tribal massacres in the desert and piles of bodies liquefying in the heat. Suddenly the hardness of Africa reveals itself to you. Senseless and without redemption…You want to leave. And you believe you will never come back… You don’t care. You are already on the other side of the ocean, shielded by what’s left of your good European clothes, the list of phone calls you have to make tomorrow. You are out of here. You check in with a smile, handing your ticket to the pretty stewardess in flawless uniform, the efficiency of Europe already welcoming you behind the airline counter… You don’t know yet that you won’t be able to get away.IMG_1216

So many people have tried to define the feeling the French call mal d’afrique which in fact is a disease. The English never had a definition for it, I guess because they never liked to admit that they were being threatened in any way by this continent. Obviously because they preferred the iIMG_2277dea of ruling it rather than being ruled by it [I think this is actually a quote from photographer Guillaume Bonn]. Only now I realize how that feeling is a form of corruption. It’s like a crack in the wood which slowly creeps its way in. It gradually gets deeper and deeper until it has finally split you from the rest. You wake up one day to discover that you are floating on your own, you have become an independent island detached from its motherland, from its moral home base. Everything has already happened while you were asleep and now it’s too late to attempt anything: you are out here, there’s no way back. This is a one-way trip… This is why one day you have to come back. Because now you no longer belong anywhere. Not to any address, house, or telephone number in any city.

Africa has taken you in and has broken you away from what you were before. This is why you will keep wanting to get away but will always have to return.

Then, of course, there is the sky.DSC01674

There is no sky as big as this one anywhere else in the world. It hangs over you, like some kind of gigantic umbrella, and takes your breath away. You are flattened between the immensity of the air above you and the solid ground. It’s all around you, 360 degrees: sky and earth, one the aerial reflection of the other… Those drifting clouds which constantly redesign the map: in one glance you can see a rainstorm building up north, the sun shining in the east, and grey sky in the west which is bound to turn blue any minute…

You see yourself as you are driving into this grandiose absolute geometry: you are just a tiny dot, a minuscule particle advancing very slowly. You have now drowned in space, you are forced to redefine all proportions. You think of a word that hasn’t occurred to you in years. It sprouts from somewhere inside you.

You feel humble. Because Africa is the beginning…

You can’t hide.”



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