Revisiting my life in Africa

Friday, September 11, 2020 Permalink

One of my University subjects requires me to write a personal essay. All three subjects actually require ‘major’ assignments and I keep changing my mind about them. But drafts of two are now due in mere days, so I figure I need to stop friggin’ procrastinating and worrying that I’ve not chosen the perfect topic and just start writing.

I (eventually) decided my personal essay would be about my time in Africa. Long-time readers of my blog will recall I’ve often pondered the idea of writing some sort of factional account of my 18mths (or so) there in the mid 1990s.

It’s not that I think my life there was that enthralling. (It wasn’t.) But… my parents kept every single letter and fax (and aerogram) I sent home, preserving them all in folders. As I’ve mentioned before, my first letter home was 21 x A4 pages long so… there’s A LOT of detail there.

However, I figured I could somehow write 2500 words for my ‘creative non-fiction / personal essay’ subject using excerpts of the letters. As someone who hates reading non-fiction but seems to only write it (in the form of my navel-gazing blog posts) this particular subject has intrigued me. I know sweet fuck-all about most of the writers we’re studying but reading more and more ‘features’ or ‘essays’. LitHub and The New Yorker have become my best friends.

Though my eyes glaze over at the talk of ‘theory’ I like that our studies promote the use innovative structural options like fragmentation / segments and non-linear story telling. They’re perfect for moi who’s prone to wander off on lengthy tangents because I think of some incredibly-important related-but-unrelated fact. #ADDMind

So… I’ve now spent MANY hours reading through these bloody letters, revisiting my life in Africa. And I’m no closer to working out exactly what to write. I have no story arc. No angle. I joke about ‘not becoming a better person’ which I think had been my reason for becoming an overseas volunteer in the first place. And I’ve shared brief anecdotes from my time there in past (the million dollar blanket; the 4.30am radio interview; pondering the journey vs destination).

revisiting africa

It has to be said, reading these letters (25yrs after I wrote them) has been wild. In fact, I wonder if I shouldn’t write my essay on one of my other observations rather than trying to capture my entire time there. Because…

1. I’ve forgotten so much. The memory is a fragile thing. I’ve discovered things I thought I knew/remembered for sure were mis-memories.

2. I was so frigging sociable. From the moment I arrived I was out most nights for drinks and dinner. Despite saying I wouldn’t hang out with other foreigners, I clung to other expats and English speakers with a fierce ferociousness that shocks me.

3. I met so many different people. Some just briefly. I got randomly got invited to things, and I went! An eight-hour Christmas lunch at an English woman’s place from the British Embassy I’d met the night before. Agreeing to go to a beach with someone who knew someone. Outing upon outing. Over the past two decades I’ve refrained from ‘doing things’. I’d forgotten I wasn’t always like this. Back then I reached out to people. I rave on in my letters about people I don’t remember. I spent huge amounts of time with several people I don’t even recall meeting. We had deep and meaningful conversations (which I shared with my parents) and life-changing moments.

4. I spend a lot of time trying to work out how to bridge the cultural, privilege gaps between me and Mozambicans I’d met and become friendly with. There’s a strong sense of guilt and white privilege mixed with frustration at being seen as ‘different’ – being constantly asked for money by strangers, for loans from colleagues, being the topic of conversation and centre of attention when there were no other white faces around.

5. My perceptions of people I meet change. I talk about my work colleagues glowingly in the beginning. But slowly I start to get frustrated, to the point I hate them with all of my being. In later letters I’m more pragmatic.

6. My cynicism for the work of the organisation I worked for changed over time. My positivity is soon smothered and my enthusiasm wanes. My initial weeks and months are spent with me stressing that I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing. Then I have all of these ideas that are shot down so I become discouraged and apathetic. Cynical and directionless.

revisiting africa

7. My love for the country grows. I’m in shock on arrival. By the lack of services and infrastructure, by the poverty. Later, after I’ve done some rural travel I’m grateful for occasionally running water and intermittent electricity. I worry I’m too spoilt in the nation’s capital.

8. My rural trip was a tipping point and offered a huge learning curve about myself.

9. When overcome with frustration I crack and am a complete bitch and cannot help myself. But later learn from others that they’re the same and I see it in action.

10. I intermingle my English with bad Portuguese. As time goes on I double up on phrases, adding both the English and Portuguese versions. I stop using pronouns. I start using the Portuguese spellings of things.

11. Importantly (but not enough to fill 2500 words) I’m confronted by how much people can change. And by people, I mean me. I think of myself as tolerant however I am horrified about some of the things I’ve written in my letters. My best friends there were a gay couple. One of the couple was a difficult person and she and I (well she and everyone) clashed a lot. At once point in a letter I reference a conversation in which I make some horrible comment about why she ‘decided’ to become gay. I admit I meant it to be disparaging because she was pissing me off. The current-me can’t believe the then-me would say or think that… let alone then share it with (confess it to) my parents. WTAF?

Fuck. I. Need. To. Pick. Something. And. Write.

Any suggestions? Or better still, just TELL ME what I should write about. 

19 Comments
  • Lorraine
    September 11, 2020

    I have not read your post in full yet. But me being in Canada and you in Australia, I believe we have a 24 hours difference. Since it seems you need to make a decision soon, I suggest you write about Africa. I visited South Africa in 2015 and felt in love. I hope to go back one day. I do not understand why you say you have no angle for you writing? Notice I am not a writer. You are talking about how you have changed since then…in this era where we have the Trumps of this world, The Black Lives Matters, etc etc why don’t you write about your personal growth ? I am thinking about this movie…Natural Born Killer…with Edward Norton where we follow this white supremacist who is changing…that was a great movie and it won many prices. So many people love to be reading about changes, growing up, what makes us think differently would it be because we age, we grow or we admire someone that makes us question ourselves…

    One of your reader from Quebec, Canada. Pardon me my mistakes as I am francophone but have the chance to be able to read in English 🙂

    • Debbish
      September 11, 2020

      Thank you Lorraine and hello from Australia! Writing about my growth since then would definitely work. I guess I could also consider those values I had then and if they changed or what I’ve been exposed to since then. Someone on Twitter also suggested the subject of ‘worth’ which I think would possibly be related.

  • Jo
    September 11, 2020

    Loved this post Deb. I totally related too. Some of my old diaries and letters from my expat days make me cringe. I’ve grown so much in many ways and yet there was so much then that I remember with great fondness. But you definitely have a memoir there!

    • Debbish
      September 11, 2020

      I was more surprised at how many things I’d forgotten, not remembered at all or had completely mixed up in my mind. It’s so weird that some of it isn’t even vaguely familiar!!!

  • Theresa Smith Writes
    September 11, 2020

    Why don’t you write about this time revisiting your letters and correspondence from Africa. A looking back reflection on it, if you know what I mean. Let that be your focus rather than the historical time spent there and trying to tap back into that. Write about rediscovering your history through the letters and the things it made you think about and remember and reflect on.

    • Debbish
      September 11, 2020

      That’s probably what I was leaning towards Theresa. How I see things in retrospect and the stuff I’ve forgotten. And because my letters are like a diary (in fact I comment in one of the letters that ‘they’ will be my diary, which I guess I realised would be the case when mum was keeping them) I’ve got everything and anything in there. There’s SO MUCH about how much stuff costs… potatoes costing x this week. Rare occasions I could buy diet coke and sour cream. Specifics about how much I’d gotten when I changed US dollars for local currency that day etc…

  • Tracey (Carpe Librum)
    September 11, 2020

    Hi Deb, I agree with Theresa, write about memory and the passage of time, through the lens of re-visiting your personal documents from this period in Africa.

    Presumably you also need another topic, so how about how an essay about your love of reading and perhaps how your reading has changed/helped during the pandemic.

    • Debbish
      September 12, 2020

      Yes, I’m starting to think the personal essay will be a bit of a reflection on my memories.

      Interestingly both other assignments I’m doing are reading related.The other (draft needed this weekend) is focused on ‘series’ of books and how an author decides when to finish a series (or why they start a series). I’ve interviewed a couple of authors for it.

      And the other (due the next week) is a profile on crime fiction in Australia! (It’s for a publishing subject.)

  • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
    September 11, 2020

    I think Theresa’s idea is great , if you need a framework/theme maybe something about the vagaries of memory.
    You can do this!

    • Debbish
      September 12, 2020

      Yes I think you’re right Shelley-rae. I wasted another couple of hours going through the quotes in the letters I’d already bookmarked writing them into a notebook and then realised – once I had a dozen foolscap pages – that I really didn’t need most. (And I was only halfway through!)

  • Jo
    September 12, 2020

    I think your arc is growth. It’s there in the way your perceptions change – to everything – how having a great time (at the beginning) and pushing your own physical & personal boundaries have led to your perceptions also widening &, in turn your values. It really is about growing up. #my2centsworth

    • Debbish
      September 13, 2020

      Quite understandably my blithering intro is about 1000 words so at the moment I’ve not exactly decided on the focus but tried to get a few letter quotes and started the reference to my false memories. I think what I’m thinking is the case is that my time there reflects that wanky quote… ‘You might not remember what someone said, but you’ll remember how they made you feel.’

      I think that’s the case as I ponder on it more. Reading the letters gives me a really strong flashback to how I felt but I realise that things weren’t as I remember. (And there’s an inordinate amount of people mentioned who I remember nothing about. Including their existence!)

  • Kate W
    September 12, 2020

    Okay, I read this post through my therapist lens (sorry, I can’t help it). My therapist lens looks for the ‘rub’. The bits where there’s a ‘but’ or a reverse, or a justification… it’s usually subtle. That said, the part of your post that jumped out at me was the bit where you said you used to be a person that said yes – “Outing upon outing. Over the past two decades I’ve refrained from ‘doing things’. I’d forgotten I wasn’t always like this.”

    Perhaps your piece could be about this change in yourself, framed by looking back at your time in Africa? Yes to an eight hour lunch then, now …. (you fill in the comparison!).

    In your words, I hear something of that version of yourself that you would like to recapture. Or am I reading too much into your post?!

    • Debbish
      September 13, 2020

      No Kate, I think you’ve identified something I found in my letters that surprised me. I tend to think that I’ve only become more assertive recently. And maybe that is the case but… I can see instances in the letters where I’ve raised things I felt unfair (the women’s treatment of some of the younger girls in the office for eg). I’ve told my volunteer organisation that there’s no work / job for me and that they needed to do better research before placing me there. And… mostly on a few occasions I mention in my letters that I feel like ‘I deserve better’.

      In more recent years I’ve said ‘no’ to a couple of situations that I felt really didn’t sit well with me. (A temporary government job in which there was no work and the role created for the wrong reasons; and saying no to a position that I could see was going to be fraught with very obvious issues around communication. On both of those occasions I could see what was happening. Perhaps once I would have not felt empowered enough to speak up but ‘now’ I did.)

  • Gaby
    September 13, 2020

    Perhaps you could write about the very thing you‘ve raised with this post. This assignment bringing you face to face with your long ago diary/letters, and the contemplation of the changes in your life /outlook the African experience brought you and who you are now that many years later. The opportunity of this essay challenge for self-examination in a changing world? Good luck and happy writing!

    • Debbish
      September 15, 2020

      Thanks Gaby. I had to submit part of a draft for feedback from others but have scope to work on the theme a little. I’ve included a couple of quotes from letters in the draft but the feedback I’ve had from others in my course so far is that it the quotes / info in the letters is less interesting than my reflection.

  • Lorraine
    September 25, 2020

    Hi Deb. Keep us posted! Did you submit your essay? What did you choose as a subject? Let us know!

    • Debbish
      September 26, 2020

      I submitted a draft for comment and the comments from fellow students were positive. The lecturer commented on the fact I needed to decide on a ‘deeper theme’. I spent some time in bed last night pondering the idea of making it about something I’ve been meaning to write about for ages. About the fact that even though we might ‘move’ we take along our baggage and issues and can’t necessarily expect external things to change us.

I'd love to hear your thoughts