V a n i s h i n g A f r i c a
When Vanishing Africa was published I received many letters from women of all ages asking me how I had produced a book like that and also managed to have a family. The truth is that I did not manage, or rather, I only partly managed.
My family life was decomposing, my marriage was falling apart and I was in deep despair. My parents came to the rescue.
I felt like a leaf blown in a storm, rising and crashing with every fresh gust of wind. Totally unprepared, I had no idea how to handle my marriage or my wayward husband, who himself was drifting down the current of his own life unable to find a firm
fix for his anchor. It was a terrible time in our lives and for years I lived the debilitating existence of the drowning. Remembering those years still makes me shiver.
I finally broke away and took my first baby with me. I went to live in Paris in my mother's Left Bank atelier. I had completely lost sight of any direction and trudged through each day as if I was carrying an impossible burden. I was thirty-five years old and I was blowing in the wind. My African roots had been severed and I was slowly wilting. I was so enmeshed in my hopeless emotional drama that I did not bother to open a letter that had arrived for me from London for several weeks. When
I did, it was an invitation from Billy Collins, an English publisher, to come to London to meet with him.
I emerged from my despair and my anguish and turned my back on them. I felt finally delivered and embarked on
the first, most satisfying solo flight of my life. Vanishing Africa was the result.
In response to the letter from Billy Collins, I arrived in London unannounced and found that he had just left for Australia and would not be back for three months. I saw his senior editor, Adrian House, instead, a charming grey-haired, very English gentleman who offered me a quarter of an hour of his time at the end of his day.
When I showed him my photo layout and told him of my project - to photograph the tribal life and customs of the people of Africa before they changed forever - he pricked up his ears and the fifteen minutes spilled into several hours and ended with drinks and dinner at the Ritz. Adrian could only offer to send the photographs to Billy in Australia. I acquiesced half-heartedly and returned to Paris the next day. Forty-eight hours later an excited Adrian was on the phone reading me a cable he had just received from Australia: 'Marvellous photographs. Put her under contract. Acquire world exclusivity, give her £5000 and tell her to go' it read.
I was drunk with freedom, my head was light, my morale was high.
I didn't know it at that point, but I was on the threshold of my new independent life.
For the next two years as I explored Kenya with my camera,
I met a multitude of different people living in the outlying districts. The tribes I visited differed greatly from one another, but they all shared the one characteristic that I had until then ignored, but was essential to the survival of the human race.
They had adapted to their surrounding environments and did not yet crave or seek for things beyond their immediate needs. They seemed primitive by our standards, but their simple code of life was built on the basic laws of survival; eating, sleeping and reproducing. They solved their problems in their own ways,
and law and order was kept by the elders of the clan. Women were submissive and obeyed their men and never questioned
their position as perpetuators of the tribe.
The children grew
up naturally, according to the teachings of the elders, obeying them, and contributing at an early age to the workload of the compound. It was an ancient patriarchal system that worked
and underlined the importance familial rank. I did not yet know then how threatened this way of life was and how timely my presence was among them.
After each safari I returned to the farm in Naivasha to see
my girls, to service and repair my vehicle, stock up with fresh provisions, develop my film and look at my contact sheets. Naivasha was my anchor. Having such a base to return to was essential to the success of my undertaking. It provided me with immense emotional and physical security and allowed me to push my frontiers ever further. I was able thus to advance without trepidation, secure in the knowledge that my back was covered and my family was always there to close ranks behind me.
may seem a trite thing to say, but it was a crucial factor. In the two years I spent on my eight different safaris into the outback collecting my photographs, I travelled 20,000 miles, criss-crossing the country and worked in areas and under conditions so varied it was sometimes difficult to believe that I was still in the same country. From the dusty semi-desert in the north, I descended to the lush tropical environment of the coast. I froze on the slopes of Mounts Kilimanjaro and Kenya and fried on
the Indian Ocean waves where the winds and salty air dried my skin to parchment. But I became tough and sinewy again and
my energy could have driven a steam engine uphill. I never
felt fatigued or hesitant, I barged forward like a bulldozer, circumnavigating obstacles, crushing any problems that presented themselves with my unquestioning drive and subtle conviction.
I had never felt better in my life. What a rebirth it was. I had finally come into my own. I was thirty-six years old.
I also learned a great deal. For the first time I was coming into contact with the other side of the coin. Until then I had always been a white African, a product of the colonial system I had been raised in. I considered the Africans as my servants, not human beings like myself. Vanishing Africa was my journey of self-discovery and self-awareness. I began to use my own head and stopped living according to the dictates of my parents, my colonial friends and the rarefied environment of my status as a white woman in an African country. I don't know how or why the change came about, but I think it was prompted by the simple, open-hearted welcome and respect with which I was greeted and accepted everywhere I went.
Looking back now, almost forty years later, I can see clearly why and how the naive primitive purity of the Africans has so rapidly degenerated into the chaos and confusion of today. Their very openness was their downfall. I was then still totally unaware how close to the end they were and how very fortunate I was to still be able to catch a glimpse of them and their ways of life, let alone record it, before it was gone forever. It would be impossible to produce such a work today.
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FOREWARD | IN THE BEGINNING | VANISHING AFRICA | IN THE BOSOM OF MY FAMILY