Dancing in Africa

Posted by on Jul 1, 2018 in Blog, Featured | 7 comments

Dancing in Africa

Recently I was watching a movie on TV entitled Get On Up, a biography of the R&B singer, James Brown, starring Chadwick Boseman, a great actor who has also starred as Jackie Robinson in 42 and in Black Panther. Seeing the movie rekindled a memory that I thought I’d share.

When I was in college in the late 1960s, I decided to get out of the Western world for a year and study in Africa. I had never been overseas and I wanted to go somewhere new and exotic. So, I got accepted in a one-year program at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa, for the school year 1969-70. I took courses in African history, religion, politics, and literature. It was a tough year….I had dysentery a good part of the year and was extremely lonely. But the one thing that I loved to do was to go up-country to villages whenever I could.

The trip that watching Get On Up brought back was my heading up to the northeastern part of Sierra Leone to a small village, Kabala. There was a Peace Corps person there who had invited me to come up for a weekend. Getting there was difficult. I sat in the back of a crowded lorry, with goats and chickens, as we made our way slowly along dirt roads. I had learned that there were two types of Peace Corps volunteers. One type stayed in the largest house in their village, had their expensive stereo equipment with them, smoked dope every night, and taught English. The other type immersed themselves into the culture of the village, learned the tribal language, rarely went to Freetown, and did primarily agricultural work. I liked volunteers on both sides but I admired this second group far more.

When I arrived in Kabala, my friend was just getting ready to take some agricultural equipment to a small village on a river with no roads into it. In other words, we had to hike through the jungle several miles to get to the village. He mentioned to me that he had never been to this village before but he had met the chief. He also guessed that most of the people had never seen a white person before and would be scared.

We arrived hot and sweaty. It was a beautiful village—about 10 small huts surrounding a central gathering area, right on a gorgeous river. The chief came over to greet us as all of the kids scattered and hid behind the huts. The chief was blind and dying of syphilis. He came up to me and put his hands on my face, touching my face all over and made a comment to my Peace Corps friend in Temne language. My friend translated and told me that he had said that I must be a very kind person.

With that introduction, he invited us to a dinner that one of his four wives had prepared. I remember that we sat around this fire in the central gathering area eating wonderful food as the chief and my friend discussed the agricultural equipment that we had brought to the village. Occasionally, I could see a child peering at us from behind a hut. All of a sudden, my friend brought out a radio and turned it on. It was a BBC station from London playing R&B music. So, there I am, sitting in the jungle in West Africa, in a beautiful, small village, with a river flowing by and no roads, as James Brown comes on this radio, singing Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.

All of a sudden, the kids started coming out from behind the huts, dancing to the music. They were shy at first but soon everyone was dancing. I remember feeling so happy and content—looking out over the river with the sounds of the jungle blending with the sounds of the music. And yet I felt sad as well—knowing that this peaceful, innocent life in the village wouldn’t last much longer. This mixture of feelings is what has stayed with me over the years.

7 Comments

  1. It’s a beautiful piece John! One can really be in that moment with you! You transferred the feelings beautifully! Have a great summer!

  2. Excellent, expressive prose, John!

  3. A great piece, John! As I read it, I thought of a no-income/low income food pantry where I was helping last week. With school out now, there were several children waiting patiently with their mothers for their turn to receive much needed food. We had set up a special area for the kids with crayons, coloring books, stickers and simple toys, as well as some kid-sized snacks. Though at first the kids were hesitant to approach this area, a few of us went over to the area, knelt down and began coloring and playing catch with a small ball. The kids quickly joined with us, celebrating at least for a few minutes a childhood that may have seemed to be taken away from them. They would soon enough return to the challenging realities of their lives. But for those special moments, the gift of these children’s spontaneity and their joy brightened both their day and ours.

  4. What a beautiful way of capturing a moment in your past! It reminds me some times I had as a young person when I was in a far-flung outpost in Israel and had some random contact with Western life. The juxtaposition was poignant.

  5. Reminds me of the first time I went to Nigeria for some consulting work. My client from the Packard Foundation, some folks we were working with there and I went out to dinner. Small little place in Kano, very foreign and yet it was Valentines Day so they served the pounded yam in a heart shape and Luther Vandross was singing in the background. It both disturbs and delights when you see your culture integrated into another culture. Thanks for sharing a vivid story.

  6. Great story John. I felt like I was beginning a short novel by a celebrated author. What a wonderful experience, I envy you having had it. We should all have experiences like that, but most of us aren’t willing to come out of our comfort zone, even in our youth. What else don’t we know about you? Keep the stories coming!!

  7. More evidence, John, if any were needed that people across the globe have more in common than the things that appear to separate us.

    Thanks for painting such a vivid picture.

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