I had a house in Africa*

I had a house in Africa…

Not “a farm at the foot of the Ngong hills”, as Karen Blixen, though I did go to the hills later. (“But that, Best Beloved” is another story.)

It was a simple house by the West African sea. A concrete jetty pointing North. The sun rose every day to the right and set to the left. My father taught me the cardinal points there. To this day, when I look for the North, I see the open African sea.

African fishing boats went by. Triangular “Latin sails” flapping in the wind. Schools of dolphins would jump in and out of the water, East to West, right to left, but a few hundred yards away.

Sometimes dozens of Ghanean canoes went by racing. They had golden oars. Chanting as they raced along.

The concrete jetty was our launching pad to the horizon. No beach really, except for a handful of grey sand at low tide. Just black rocks. We knew the tide tables by heart. Crucial. Told you when you could go for a swim at high tide, or fish at low tide. Just be wary of the jelly fish around September.

We were sailors. Merchants of silk and spices. Pirates and buccaneers. No TV then. What for?

At times you could hardly tell where the sea ended and the sky started. “What is that line between the two?” I asked my father once. “The horizon”, he said.

On and on went the days, all alike and all different. No school for us. Just homework to finish in a rush every morning and go play with the Sea.

Little sister pointing to the horizon, and yours truly sitting on the jetty after an exhausting morning. Conakry, Guinea, West Africa, c. 1962. We had a house in Africa.

*Part of the Mzungu chronicles. Mzungu, plural: wazungu. Mzungu is a Bantu (Swahili) word used throughout East Africa from Uganda to Kenya to Tanzania to Zambia and in the great lakes region, from Rwanda, Burundi, to Congo Kinshasa. It means “white man”, or woman. The origin of the word dates back to the 18th-19th century, when European explorers came to East Africa searching for the source of the Nile, the gold mines of Solomon, or the Mountains of the moon, what have you. It literally means traveller or wanderer. Africans then, could not understand why Europeans could not stay in place, why they had to move all the time. They thought Europeans were just a tad crazy. Mimi na mzungu!

Karen Blixen – who was a Memsahib mkubwa – in her book ‘Out of Africa’, wrote one of the best opening lines ever:

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills.”

97 thoughts on “I had a house in Africa*

  1. Lovely.
    In one of your older posts you mentioned how so much of Africa has been embroiled in warfare, large and not so, assasinations to genocide.
    Independance has often simply meant a change in tyranny.
    As the Who once sang:
    “Meet the new boss,
    Same as the old boss ….
    Won’t get fooled again.”

    Only we do get fooled time and time again.
    Humans… “A rum lot” as the English say.

    • Addendum: random thoughts.
      Africa does not exist. (I know, I lived there…) A quote from Georges Arnaud on Guatemala)
      There is not one, but many Africas.
      West Africa. East Africa. South Africa. (North Africa is not Africa…) 😉
      The white man’s Africa and the black man’s. (What would the word for “mzungu” be in Zulu or Xhosa?)
      We don’t see the same thing.
      There’s the despots’ Africa. The only thing Western politicos see.
      There’s the Kikuyu’s and the Maasaï’s Africa. (And so forth)
      And there may be a new, different Africa, which I have barely glimpsed: the Africa of the young urban Africans. Don’t know where that will lead.
      Any way. I’ve loved Africa so much, but I don’t think I will ever go back… 😀
      Cheers Mate.

    • C’était merveilleux. Malgré la violence partout présente.
      L’Afrique était la Beauté pure…
      Maintenant? Je ne sais pas. Ça fait 35 ans que je ne suis pas retourné. Je doute que j’y retourne jamais…
      C’est pas grave… J’ai vu la fin d’un monde… Et ça valait la peine.
      Biz

      • Toujours. Chaque fois qu’on voit comment d’autres voient le monde on apprend quelque chose. (Même si on n’est pas toujours d’accord). Pense à ton expérience Russe. Unique, non? (Du coup tu es peut-être la seule qui comprenne quelque chose à ce qui se passe à l’Est en ce moment….)
        Biz

  2. Cher Brieuc,

    You had me at the title… And I love watching your art come to life. How lucky to have had such a childhood!
    Thank you for sharing both your story and your art!

    Dale xoxo

    • “I had you”? Title not according to the post?
      Otherwise, remember, the credit of that sentence goes to Blixen… A hell of a writer. (And I was lucky to “follow in her footsteps. Later on, i used to ride horses in the Ngong hills, in Kenya, near where her farm used to be…) Mais ça, Mieux-aimée, est une autre histoire. (Kipling bien sûr. Je suis un pickpocket de citations)
      And we were lucky. Another writer once said: “How to get over a magic childhood”. Ou quelque chose d’approchant… C’est pas trop difficile d’ailleurs. (But it does set standards pretty high) 🤣
      Comment va ta tête? Déjà oublié?
      Biz

      • Silly goose… Did you not ever see Jerry Maguire? “You had me at hello…” It’s a good thing!
        Et oui, je sais que c’est Isaak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen) – by the way, son mari figure dans le livre “West With the Wind” 😉
        Grand soupire… quelle chance tu as eu! Nous sommes tous des pickpockets de citations!
        Déjà oublié. Tête vide 😉
        Biz!

      • Jerry Maguire? Yep. Seen it. Good movie, mais je me rappelle pas la citation.
        West with with the wind? Will look it up.
        Je dis toujours à mes filles qu’on a eu de la chance, mais aussi que nos ancêtres ont travaillé dur…
        Si c’est oublié, c’est que ça va mieux…
        Biz.

    • Precisely Memsahib Mkubwa. The way we were. In the Mzungu’s Africa. (I’m sure you will agree that there are many Africas, and “ours” was different from the Africans’. Which is fine.
      All well Tish? Spring coming to your wonderful garden and neck of the woods?
      Kwaheri sassa.

      • Agree that our Africa was very very different from the locals’ Africa. And yes, signs of spring here in Shropshire with lots of snowdrops and the daffodils budding, but cold winds and hail between sunny intervals. Brrr.

      • We do agree.
        Did that big storm come near you?
        I’ve always found daffodils to be very brave flowers (and elegant), one of the first to fight winter.
        March is just around the corner. Hang on…
        And now madness is loose on the continent. Jesus!

  3. This is wonderful, Brian. One can see the memory develop in the drawings. In the final photograph the palm trees are absent, making the image kind of endless, but in reality they were there, like they should. I wrote it before and I write it again: you had a utterly romantic childhood.

    • You have a keen eye, Peter. I actually had to draw from several photographs. Not one captured the infinity we saw every day. (The palm trees are behind us in the photo. My mother used to say that if the trees were still there they would be much taller.)
      And yes, we were lucky…
      Dankje wel Peter. Als goed?

      • Alles goed, Brian. I am starting to notice my age a bit, not broken, not at all, but parts are in need of some repair now and then. Quite normal for a mid sixtie guy. However, because I was lucky until now, it becomes a bit of a nuisance. Still, I can’t complain and thus I won’t. 🙂 You okay?

      • Mid sixties now? I pegged you much younger. (I’m from 1953 myself)
        And yes, with time, some parts need repair… So it is. best to do it quick though, the repairs will hold longer…
        Best of luck in that department.
        We’re fine. Precisely doing a round of doctors to fix a few parts. LOL.
        Be good Peter.

      • Yes, yes, but. It was filmed on location. I used to ride in those very same hills. gave me a shock to see that it was still there. And pushed me to move out. Of France. So here I am now. In Latin America… For good and for bad.

      • It is intriguing right? I’d been playing the conscientious Frog for ten years. Playing the French game. While I had known maybe 10-15 countries before I was 20. But seeing that movie on a cold November evening, I thought: It’s just been shot. It is still out there. The Magic. So I started buggering my English bosses. (We had an operation in Kenya…) When they gave Kenya to a Brit, I had a row with the CEO, reminded him I spoke Swahili, he’d conveniently forgotten, and resigned… So they said, no, no, wait a second. A couple of jobs opened in Latin America. I spoke Spanish fluently, my wife is Colombian. We chose mexico. And here we are… The ways of Fate are strange aren’t they?
        Cheers Paul Have a great day. (You’re already tomorrow. This is a Time-machine!) 🤣

      • Thank you for that sketch – absolutely fascinating, begs a book methinks – not too many folk have had those experiences. Strange ways indeed. You too. (Line 7 – I think you meant either bothering or badgering – but your freudian line was probably reflective of chagrin oon your bosses 🙂

      • Thank YOU. Not sure about a book. Who will read it? 😉
        Line 7. I knew there could be some misinterpretation which you aptly uncovered. So I just checked: “Buggering meaning. 1. Vulgar British slang” (I have had bad influences) “cause serious harm or damage to”… 2. will remain unmentioned… 😉
        And chagrin is a very appropriate Frog word for my appreciation of them at the time. We later made peace.
        Take care, Paul

  4. Quel endroit féérique ! J ‘ espère que tu as toujurs cette maison et que le calme inspiré par les dessins est toujours là.
    j’ ai eu une belle fille qui venait tout droit de Guinée Conakri il y a maintenant une vingtaine d’années !
    Amitiés
    Michel

    • Belle lurette que nous n’avons plus la maison. On a habité Conakry de ’59 à 63. Malgré l’infâme criminel qu’était Sékou Touré. c’était assez extraordinaire. (On est parti à temps. 3-4 ans plus tard tous nos amis ont été arrêtés, certains exécutés…
      J’ai regardé sur Google Earth, la maison ou une remplaçante semble être toujours là. Mais le village Africain tout en paillotes derrière a disparu, remplacé par d’affreux immeubles. Les HLM’s sont passés par là.
      Belle-fille de Conakry? Intéressant. “J’ai eu”? Plus maintenant?
      Bonne soirée.

  5. Absolutely love it. the drawing and the narration and the mood you are creating with it. It fits into my current dream of a Mexican beach…
    Bisous from snow covered Iceland.

    • Coming from you I am very much honoured and humbled. I admire your work very much, the apparent ease with which you draw, the choice of characters, subjects, situations, movement, expression… Mr Fox et al are adorable.
      Merci beaucoup. Bisous back.

  6. Such unique and totally amazing memories you have shared, Brian. I love your sketches too. I consider myself fortunate to have lived in Africa. I was such an education. Your childhood sounds quite idyllic. Lucky you.

    • Africa is/was an education indeed. (Don’t you spend half the year in SA? Or not anymore?)
      We were lucky. Can’t complain. It does make “adjusting” to the home country a tad difficult. Strangely enough, of all my expat brat friends, half the siblings always went “back” away, half stayed in the “home country.” An iron-tigh rule. Some manage to adapt to “normalcy” some can’t. I couldn’t.

  7. Ah – Karen Blixen. As a Danish descendant, I liked the movie but not as much as I thought I would. A friend of mine grew up as one of her neighbours in a very posh area north of Copenhagen. The house is now a tourist attraction.
    Your step by step sketches and watercolour is wonderful and this post was a delight to read. Especially seeing the black and white photo at the end to tie in reality.
    Interesting is the African attitudes to travel. It is a valid point and a need a people might have when they have reached a sustainable level of comfort, perhaps? That desire to know what else lies out there. Or was exploring all about conquest and building of wealth alone?

    • Posh are near Copenhaguen? Why am I not surprised. In fact, when we lived in Kenya, no-one knew about her, but I used to ride in a neighbourhood called Karen, precisely at the foot of the Ngong hills. Most likely because her house was there. We often rode past tea plantations. Maybe passed by her house. Who knows.
      Exploring and conquest? Related and not. Part of the great explorations of the 15th to 19th century were to conquer new land. And people in passing. But I am convinced a good part of it was a human desire to see what’s over there.

      • You rode past that iconic Africa house of Karen Blixend. Wow! Our connections to this writer are surprising!
        I suspect you are right about the intentions of the explorers. Human curiosity drives many of us to create, invent, or analyse! Have a lovely creative/inventive/analytical week, Brian!

  8. Beautiful artwork. Love how you showed us sketch by sketch and coloured it all in towards the end – a simple childhood yet one that was so colourful and enriching. You know it’s a good coast when you can’t really tell where the sea and sky met. It’s like magical. And you know, sometimes you want to believe in a bit of magic. That’s how childhood should be.

    Interesting to hear that Africans were confused as to why Europeans were always on the move back then. Being on the move is great, you get to explore and find new treasures as your post alluded too. But there’s also much beauty right where you are.

    • Magic… That’s what childhood is for, isn’t it? yet so many children around the world are deprived of it.
      Question: do you have family where you live? Parents? Brothers/sisters?
      Mzungu actually means “slightly mad” too. The cultures were, and probably still are so different. Wide cultural distances. Within Africa too, of course. Someone form Sénégal is totally different form someone form Kenya. Even different tribes inside one country can be very different.
      And yes. There is much Beauty where you are. I realized that a few years, looking at the Seine in front of Notre-Dame. It dawned on me that I’d been looking for beauty all around the world, while I had it right there, in front of my eyes. In PAris.
      LOL.

      • Yes, magic is a big part of childhood…for the lucky ones, at least. It’s the kind of magic you will always remember and look back on, and wish you can go back to…but it’s gone.

        I have my parents here in Australia and some relatives. They’re all migrants, and so have a different perspective on the way of life here.

        Never too late to realise beauty is right in front of you, Never too late for anything 🙂

      • Gone, yes and no. What you have lived and experienced, nobody can take away from you. You carry it inside.
        Good that you have your parents nearby, though of course all migrants have a mixed perspective. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m a “migrant” in Mexico. Gives me several perspectives on all things…
        And yes, never too late for anything. Thank you for that thought.

      • What you have experienced tends to be for you, and only you can understand it. You own that experience. You learn so much as a migrant or when you move around…apart from adapting, you just got to live with what’s dealt to you. Have a good week ahead.

  9. Some might get scared of all that water.
    Some brought back the idea of a flat Earth.
    Some just have fun at the ocean shore, pointing at the end of the Earth as they see it.
    And some just dream of eternal peace and a decent life…

    Liked the idea in Jumper. If only I could just look intensely at that last picture and get teleported there and then… But I guess it’d just spoil your drawing. Bah, just edit me out of it. 🙂

  10. Blixen’s line will be with me all day (I think) and I liked that….
    I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills.

    And love the way you let the drawing-painting advance with your words and then led is to the photo of you and your sister
    This post today reminds me of why I love coming back to blogging (just had a short hiatus) and posts like this (and the 1940 one with those cool tidbits about your dad and WWII and the call to help Ukraine) well they remind me that the blogging enriches my life so much – dang – I am glad for the depth (and lightness) I often find when I scroll my followers and their feeds

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