I really hated Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and not just because my 11th grade English teacher assigned it as summer reading. While our class tried to have a balanced discussion of whether the book was racist, given its historical context, I could never get past the fact that Conrad used Africa as a metaphor for insanity and depravity.
Now, here I am in Kampala, Uganda, and – weirdly – I understand Conrad a little more. Not that I think his portrayal of Africa was at all fair. But for whatever reason, in my mind the idea of going to Africa is just a little more intimidating than anywhere else I could go. Other people seem to agree; when I told people my summer plans, it was clear that I wasn’t just travelling, I was going to Africa. Leaving and saying goodbye simply felt a little more weighty than it has when I’ve gone away before. I’m definitely being a little dramatic, but it does seem like Africa occupies a distinct place in our Western consciousness as “the other.”
Maybe it’s the crazy malaria meds I’m on, but I haven’t slept much in a week, and I’m pretty sure at least part of it is nervousness. I’m not really scared, despite watching stories on the news about a recent spate of third-world-bound planes dropping from the air and reading wide-eyed my guidebook’s chapter on ways to get sick in Uganda. Everyone tells me Uganda is relatively safe and crime-free, and I believe them. After all, for all the hazards of life in the developing world, people do live – and survive – here, so there’s no reason to think I won’t too.
I think the biggest emotion that has nagged at me has been uncertainty. I’ve partly brought that on myself by being horrendously unprepared: I literally had no idea what I was going to do when I landed, except that someone was supposed to pick me up and take me somewhere. I knew that Uganda is poor, but I didn’t know if it would be the orderly and simple kind of poverty or the more desperate, heartbreaking sort. Talking to people who have been to Africa only mixed up my expectations more: the media and academia grind into us all sorts of reports of horrendous conditions in Africa, and yet everyone I know who has been here loves it.
The few hours I’ve spent since I’ve arrived haven’t done much to help me get a sense of the place. Everything I’ve seen so far is dark and obscured. Usually, I can look at the window of a landing plane and get a sense from above of the city where I’m going. Entebbe Airport doesn’t even have runway lights. The road into Kampala is narrow and nothing is lit.
I’m pretty sure these are just the anxious musings of someone in over his head, intellectually, academically, and culturally. My house is on a hill, and my window – as far as I can tell in the dark – offers a panoramic spread of the city. I’m pretty sure in the morning – in the light – everything is going to be fantastic.