Another Africa

Say the word “Africa” in the western world, and images arise of poverty, hunger, desperation. Emaciated children with fly-blown eyes, old women staggering uphill with great loads of firewood balanced on their grizzled heads, men with machetes, boys with machine guns, corrupt political bosses with fancy women and gold-plated toilets. These images make us cringe and shudder, or toss a few bucks at aid agencies, or sign petitions for Darfur. They emphasize Africa’s “otherness.”

But there is another Africa less sensational, the Africa of hard-working, sometimes-muddled, sometimes broken-hearted middle-class Africans: teachers, physicians, government clerks, businesswomen, IT specialists–people who work in cubicles, or grade papers, or swing shifts at the hospital. People who have cars and car insurance payments. People who hook up satellite dishes to the outsides of their houses so they can watch old Hollywood movies when they wake up at 2 a.m. with insomnia. People who have electricity and indoor plumbing, who cart their children to violin lessons and art classes. People who hire less-affluent relatives to care for their aging parents, who try, despite the constant pleas of neighbors who come banging at their doors daily, to save a little for vacations in Mauritius or to take their teenagers to Disneyworld or the Louvre. They have kitchens like this one, and in their kitchens, battered wooden tables, and around those tables the history of their families’ trials and conquests has been lived and told, wept over and celebrated.

This is my friend Moroesi’s kitchen, and in the center of it, the kitchen table that was once her mother’s, the table where the family kneaded bread, drank tea daily and wine on special occasions, listened to each other’s dreams, planned for the future, and wept over disappointments and betrayals. I took this picture early in the morning on my last day in Lesotho. I walked into the kitchen before Moroesi was awake, and I saw the sun streaming through her white curtains, clean and pressed, letting in the light.  Later Moroesi joined me in the kitchen. “This table,” she said, slapping its whitewashed surface as I sat at the end of it drinking a cup of her Kenyan tea, “has heard all the stories of my life.”

Like what? I wondered.  She laughed, “My mother sat at this table when she came home from working in other women’s kitchens. She lectured me at this very table that I must work hard in school so I wouldn’t have to labor the way she did. Here she looked at my grades and meted out punishments when I disappointed her. Here I told my mother of my marriage to a man she didn’t approve of, of my pregnancy, and before long, with shame and grief, of my heartbreak. She was right about him, much as I didn’t want to admit it. He was not a good man. He had left us. But the next year at this table we opened the letter that said I’d been accepted for graduate studies at an American university. I propped my first baby on this table in her infant seat, I sat my second baby here in her high chair, and just last week I rested my fourth grandchild on this table while my daughter was on the cell phone with her ex-husband and I was trying to power up her laptop.”

Moroesi’s living room has a zebra skin on the floor under a glass-topped coffee table. There are beautiful mahogany masks on the walls, from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Ghana. Her bookcase is full of poetry and novels published in English by Maya Angelou, Chinua Achebe, Alice Walker, Flora Nwapa, Virginia Woolf, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Her grandchildren speak both Sesotho and English, and her granddaughter who is eleven is learning Spanish. Both her daughters are college-educated and divorced; one struggles with depression. Her live-in housekeeper scrubs that whitewashed table after every meal, keeps the curtains fresh, and uses a bunch of grass tied together as a broom to sweep the garden. Like middle-class people everywhere, she worries about the bills; she tries to keep her credit card balances under control; she gets headaches, and she wonders sometimes about the meaning of life.

A powerful windstorm blew in during the night I slept at her house, and it covered her car with dust and blew out the electricity. Before she took me to the airport next morning, she took the little step-stool outside and washed her car, using buckets of water because the drought had dried up all the water in the tap outside. “I love this little car,” she laughed. “It’s the best one I’ve ever had. I can’t take it to the airport looking a mess.” And then she looked out at the roadway in front of her house. “All my poor neighbors know how to come knock at my door to ask for handouts, and you would think some enterprising teenager would have been here this morning, begging to wash my car for a few rands. But not one of them has shown up. Never mind. I’ll do it myself.”

About Kendall

Undoing white supremacy and capitalism, one photograph at a time.
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24 Responses to Another Africa

  1. Oh dear, the universal angst and futility of the middle classes, forever pre-occupied with getting on and what someone else might think … but you wrote this rather nicely

  2. leiflife says:

    There is something very sweet about your telling. Your empathy shines through your words no matter who you write of or their circumstances. The Moroesi you present makes me feel small and child-like. I want to sit in that light-filled kitchen and speak to her of my mama’s constancy and how I miss her. I imagine Moroesi’s hugs are the best.

  3. suenosdeuomi says:

    Fascinating, what a privilege to be able to peak in to someone’s living room and life, thanks for sharing Kendall.

  4. John Guarino says:

    You’re right. What I think of is the picture you painted in your first paragraph. Thank you for expanding my view. As you do in so many ways.

  5. Elli says:

    I’m catching up at last! I’ve really enjoyed the photos and the stories. So many people go interesting places and never tell you anything about it. I’m glad I’ve found someone who wants to tell it all, because I always want to know it all!

  6. I have never been to Africa. It is fascinating to see it through your eyes.

  7. Evergreengirl says:

    I always love how personal your stories are, how they take us right into the intimate aspects of other people’s lives. You are so right about how most of us in the western world perceive Africa. Your description describes perfectly the very images that come into my mind when I hear or say the word “Africa”. I imagine it’s similar to how some people must think about the western United States – the white folks all live in log cabins, say things like “Howdy”, and wear plaid shirts while the Native Americans live in tepees, say things like “How” and wear buckskin. Or, on the other hand, those who are struggling with poverty in the underdeveloped world must imagine that we all walk on streets paved with gold. I would say that those in the middle class are preocccupied with neither angst nor futility, but rather spend most of their time just trying to keep their heads above water. And why shouldn’t they want more? Why shouldn’t they want something better for their children? Of course Moroesi is proud of her car – she worked hard to get it. The problem I see is that the emerging middle class in the developing worlds can now see that all the consumer goodies we have so long enjoyed are within their (or at least their children’s) grasp. And who are we to deny them? But if we all were to achieve the average American lifestyle we’d need the resources of something like nine planets! What’s to be done? That’s the looming question that must be faced sooner or later. I firmly believe that we in the developed nations will have to learn to do with less if we truly want those in the developing worlds to have more.

  8. Ann says:

    I can see why this wooden kitchen table means so much to your friend Moroesi. It had witnessed, not only the lives of her dear ones, but her own as well. It has been there for the good times, and for the bad ones, too. Standing in the kitchen, the heart of the home, listening in silence, though comforting through its familiarity, spreading a sense of belonging on the family members, being one amidst them. It gained its place of honor.
    This story brings back a long gone memory of a scarf I had received from Nonna Esther, my maternal grandmother. She had given it to me a little while before she passed away. I was only seven at the time. Treasuring her scarf, keeping it in perfect condition, I thought I would one day return it to Nonna. I was sure she’ll be back. How could she be gone forever? I couldn’t understand that death was truly final. It did not make sense that Nonna wouldn’t come back. Why would she leave, she loved us.

    I like the way you tell the stories of the people you know, Kendall. You make them fully alive, as if they were right here, in this very room, breathing the same air I do.
    I like your photograph, it tells a story by itself. The light is divine, pouring its white rays through those white curtains on that white precious table. Bathed in light. As I feel so often after reading you, my dear Kendall.

  9. Jett Brooks says:

    You had me at “in their kitchens, battered wooden tables, and around those tables the history of their families’ trials and conquests has been lived and told, wept over and celebrated.” I thought at first that that was the end, but then you began to unpack what that really meant, and I was captivated and deeply moved my your subsequent conversation and observations. You are indeed a master (mistress???) of words, as well as of the camera. The photo is exquisite and full of light and love. Your friends and loved ones must be completely aware that they (their thoughts, hearts, and lives) are truly safe with you, dear Kendall. You are love personified.

  10. Keith says:

    It’s easy to feel uplifted by Rosmarie’s story; or saddened and helpless by Teboho’s; and of course our perceptions of Africa are formed only of what we know which, in my own case, was all second-hand experience. Because of your blog I’ve started reading and trying to learn more about Lesotho which, previously, was just a tiny circle on a map for me. Can we solve all of the country’s problems? No. Can we solve any of them? Probably not. Can we ease one person’s pain? Some of us might be in a position to do that; but which person? And why that person and none of the others? I’ve been thinking a lot about what you have writtten about your experiences and I’ve come to the conclusion that the few people who have stood in the spotlight of your writing represent the millions around the world who suffer in so many different ways; even in wealthy countries like mine: the so-called ‘Lucky Country’. And many of them suffer in ways that are not so easily seen. If you writing does nothing more than make us a little more sensitive to the suffering of others; and a little more disposed to helping them in whatever way we can; then to my mind it has made a mighty achievement.

  11. Kendall says:

    Thanks to all of you for your warm and interesting comments. It has been a pleasure to have your good company. I suppose if there is any “purpose” in writing, it is to help us all understand each other (and ourselves) more, and become more disposed to being of service to each other. I write to know what I think and feel, and I put that writing where others can read it in hopes it serves those purposes. Once in a while, it works.

  12. Laura Harwood says:

    K, you have such a talent for evoking a sense of place. You are so right about Africa’s ‘otherness’ it is a place I have avoided from sheer fear in my travels.

    I travelled widely in the middle east as a girl,alone and blonde.But I feared Africa.I felt it was a place I would not come home from, I thought of children with guns and lawlessness and all the usual pictures.

    S0,you have written a marvellous, evocative piece. Writing, I see, runs through you like a stick of Brighton rock. Oh….that’s a candy we have in seaside towns, where they some how manage to write the name of the town in the candy so it runs thru the long tube of candy.
    I hesitate to reccommend you look for work as a writer, I feel maybe you have a history there already, and you probably know of the struggle it involves, even if you are brilliant.

    I haven’t begun to load my flickr stuff yet as I’m waiting to see if they will actually agree to replace my MAC. I think they will, but getting insurance to pay out is a battle.

    I will hear any day, I’m hoping for that so much!! To process my images and write their stories is something that makes me feel whole, and kind of in line with the universal purpose.

    Anyway I could go on, I love “speaking’ to you, you are someone I miss, even tho I we haven t met on the physical.

    Forgive any typos K, I’m struggling to do this on my iPod ! A marvellous little machine, but like us all,it has it’s limits.


  13. B.Held says:

    A beautiful post 🙂

    • Moeti says:

      A beautiful post indeed, an alternative view to the conventional western conception of jungles animal hide clothing, im a mosotho blogger and find your vivid description quite accurate. 🙂

      • Kendall says:

        Thanks, Moeti! I am no longer keeping the blog, but it’s a pleasure to have you here. The blog covers a return trip to Lesotho for me in October, 2010.

  14. I know you don’t post here much anymore (if at all), but I had to nomitate your beautiful blog for a Kreative Blogger Award, because, you’re like, amazing.

    • Kendall says:

      I’m deeply honored, Moonbeam, but I think you’re supposed to have an ACTIVE blog, aren’t you? This is not an active blog. I’m not blogging here any more. I might, some day, but then again probably not. You are the Kreative Blogger I love most in all the world, so I send my votes all over to you!

  15. Kim Tremblay says:

    Hi Kendall-since I can’t find your email, I will post it here and hope you get it soon. I was a student of yours in an Intro Theatre class many years ago at Smith College. You inspired and encouraged me in ways I don’t think you could realize. I was having a tough time outside of the classroom but your class helped me to explore and understand myself more deeply and gave me the courage to try new things. I am a professor now and was just looking at an old exam (it was stuck in a notebook I took out to review) and was flooded by a ream of memories and experiences from your class and that year. I just wanted to say Thank-you. Thanks for being a teacher who could inspire someone as untheater-like as me (and by that I mean- I was and have followed my dream of being a scientist and am also a mom to a couple of amazing little girls). I am compiling my tenure package (at UMass!) and can only hope to inspire students as you have.

  16. I loved reading this. One of my missions is to get my family and friends to realise we are just all the same, wanting a family life, to be settled in a place called home and live in peace with neighbours and friends. I see so much of it in Lesotho, while the folks back at home are scared for me. Maybe i”ll get them to read your blog! Thanks friend.

  17. I sponsor an AIDS orphan in Kenya through My brother, active in SHARE, travels there several times a year. So I found your post especially interesting. Look forward to reading more. Your write beautifully and have interesting information to impart.

  18. Omitunde says:

    …I can see the wisdom of Africa in every aspect of my life. I did a search for Kitchen Table Wisdom and this story appeared. It is wonderful to know that the wisdom of our connection is family and it is Universal. Thank you to Moroesi (what does her name mean?) Esi is child born on Sunday in Ashanti – if I am in my research. The wisdom of African through this story will be shared in my blog Kitchen Table Wisdom

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