Long ago, my family lived in the Ivory Coast in West Africa. It was a different time for Africa, relatively peaceful and free of the terrible violence that has come to characterize the entire continent for so many people. I’m not saying it was utopia; far from it, especially for Africans. But violence was fairly isolated. (In fact, I knew two sets of two American women who hitchhiked across Africa much later on, in the 1970s, and had the time of their lives and immediately upon returning home started planning their next trip.)
Anyway, we lived in a French, petit pain au chocolat colonial bubble. The house was modern and Le Corbusier-influenced. The school was French, and had only a few token African students, who walked from their villages when their parents could spare them, meaning hardly ever. There were two sisters in my class; they sat at the back of the class and laughed all day at our foibles. When the teacher went wild and smacked students over their heads with slates, or pulled down the underpants of another for a blistering spanking, or dragged someone by their hair or ear to the front of the class, the African girls could barely contain themselves. Often they were sent home, doubled over with laughter as they staggered out the door of our open air classroom. I liked them and wanted to get inside their heads.
We had servants and a couple of drivers. And of course, night watchmen who would often keep us awake with their laughter and chatting into the wee hours. The laughter: that is a main memory of Africans for me. That bubbling up, resonant, exploding, free of artifice laughter. Like their music. Years later when I went to Kenya I waited for that laughter and it was like a balm.
Inside this bubble, we had mostly French friends. There was no TV and no organized sports so most evenings after ecole you could find every child of a diplomat at the French Club pool. That was our social life. That and the British library where we’d take out as many books as possible to fill the long days.
But one day, my mother asked me if I wanted to drive out with her to visit a French woman who had defied convention and married a local man. She lived in “the African” part of Abidjan. The woman was beside herself with joy at the visit. Clearly she had been ostracized and needed companionship. I was struck by her small, plain apartment, but also by the degree of comfort she felt in her neighborhood. What did she see that the rest of us didn’t?
Now, her neighborhood was another world. It was color. It was sound. It was visual. It was vibrant. It was interesting. It had more bustle and street life than Rome, where we’d lived before moving to Abidjan. I wanted to stay and observe life from the window while the women talked, but my mother rushed us out after a perfunctory chat. I think she wanted to get home before anyone asked any questions. It was unforgettable.
On one of our last nights in Abidjan, our parents were at an embassy function, leaving the four children at home. Instructions were clear not to leave the house, mostly because of the bugs and snakes I believe but also because the night was an unknown entity.
But sometime after dark, we heard drumming. Then we heard the singing. Then we heard the music. In captivated us, literally. We clambered against the windows to hear more. We despaired to get closer. My younger brother and I made a go of it and ran past the servants into the pitch of the night down the street chasing the sound. We arrived at a wall enclosing a house and the music. We climbed it and peered in at the band and were in its thrall. The drumming became part of our bodies and we went wild dancing. It was unforgettable. I was nine years old.
I have forever since chased African music. They say drumming is primal. It has certainly been a fundamental experience for me. Maybe we respond to it in that part of every one of us that is African. (See: Lucy)
Last night, I went with my own family to a concert at the Portland Zoo of one of Africa’s great bands, Amadou & Miriam (www.amadou-mariam.com) from Mali. The heat, the hard French accent, the broad smiles and warmth, the race through the night to find the music before it was gone, were all there.