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The many faces of AFRICA

THE African experience has many faces, but the primary one for me is the thrill of living so completely in nature: taking each step on earth, eating the earth's offerings at their source, living with the abundance of life. To live in the forest is to live in a magical place. Entering its edges is like entering a scented, tranquil, noise-ridden, exquisite room. There is no bare earth in the forest - one walks on its pillow of fallen vines and leaves the size of platters. Leaves fallen from the sky of the forest - that green and floral ceiling that allows only some clouds to show, and some rays of sunshine to encourage it all to be.

The air's heady perfume changes constantly - sometimes the dark undergrowth, dank and rotting; sometimes a brief but devastating aroma of a unique flower far above the path; sometimes the mustiness of nightshade or an animal's wild smell, hanging in the still air. Breathing the fresh, cool odors, you forget everything but that and the sounds, and feel a most ancient comfort.

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At the equator the sun comes up immediately, is immediately hot. I would always get up at first hint of light, the air soft and freshened, to the raucous crescendo of birdsongs and chickens, and drums calling people to stir at the first edge of day. The pigs rushed by, grunting along the path in front of my house, so pressed! Much later, they would return, the afternoon sun hot on their snouts, still in a hurry, in a place where no one else hurried.

The early morning, before the heat of the day weighted everything, had a sweetness about it, not just that the air was delicate but because the feeling of renewal seemed to come with every dawn. I always felt this acutely, walking to the market along the river, the morning draped in gauzy river mist - the sweetly painted dawn mist over the red tea color of the river. Beyond it the forest upon forest, the patch of red flowers in the tall riverbank grass, nothing moving except the river and the dugouts upon it, and the clouds of butterflies, like a gown of the lightest fabric touching the people moving along the road calling greetings, calling out what they had for sale, telling the news.

Africa is a wonderfully noisy place, full of the human song and cry, birds and animals in their accompaniment, all absorbed by the vast forest and immense sky. I could never stop marveling over the sky, its clouds continually piling and colliding and swarming; I kept an eye pitched there all the time, to everyone's amusement.

The heat, as harsh as the cold, is very impressive. The sun is just beyond the heat, its hot tendrils reaching into the casual shade and sucking up the rivers. Only in the deep forest can you find relief. The stupefying heat keeps you floating, makes everything a bit surreal as you drift and shimmer and glisten. This creates the sense of timelessness, the days running into years; yet there was time for everything, generously expanding the moment until time was warped and a strict accounting impossible.

The days aren't complicated except by chickens and what's to eat and how to keep the pigs out of the gardens. The pleasures are also simple: a red sun behind the palms; bathing in the little river under a lacy canopy of leaves; sitting in starlight talking to friends; holding a newborn baby; eating papaya and limes for breakfast.

Days on the equator are evenly divided with the nights. Thus the days ended as abruptly as they began, bringing warm nights filled with drumming and muted night sounds, a crying child, and many layers of bird and animal calls, all protected by an enthralling, jewel-embedded sky, the milky way a dramatic swath of solid white in a black sky hundreds of miles from any lights. Only the glow of small night fires addressed the sky.

Living with the rhythm of the moon, staying near the houses at the dark time, dancing all night to the light, was a kind of anchoring. In some ways the moon seemed more important than the sun that made life possible.

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Sitting under the night sky, just watching, or listening to the oldest stories being told and acted out was so ancient and powerful a ritual as to make the days themselves possible, as if the nights re-created us. Late one night I went outside to get a last look at the equatorial sky, its stars flashing aggressively in competition with a full moon.

As I stood there I noticed a silver strand of a spider web gleaming in the moonlight, with neither beginning nor end, just a kind of blind stretch toward the moon. Understanding this completely, I smiled and went in to bed, sleeping easily and deeply. I felt guided by the sky and whenever I was moving about, for example, walking at sunset, I knew I walked with the first star, or perhaps a fragment of moon during the day; I was never alone.

My senses came alive in the simplicity and tranquillity of this achingly exquisite setting. I could walk easily through the moonless nights. In a place where calling back and forth was the main communication, my voice was freed, releasing my shouts and adding them to the din. The faintest hints of a citrus tree or coffee bush in bloom, a pineapple ripe somewhere in the forest, the sour scent of palm wine dripping slowly into a calabash, palm oil smoke wafting on the faintest of breezes, these became mine.

The mysteries of the nights unfolded for me as I learned the call of the hyrax and the night birds, understood the wailing and drumming for sickness and death, or the celebration of life.

If I had to describe Africa in a sentence, I would say, ``Africa is another plane of consciousness.'' Part of it is the setting; primal relief that things are as they should be: the earth feeds us, the earth receives each footstep, the earth provides sweet, cool water and the comfort of shelter. When I arrived in Africa I felt relief, even as the plane was still skimming the treetops near the capital. Then later, I was struck by how deeply familiar it all was - the smell of the night watchmen's fires, the calling back and forth, the human noises of living out in the open, the taste of green leaves cooked in palm oil, the night sounds of birds and animals and insects as a constant background for the wailing and drumming. From this place we all came, for the beginning of man was here.

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