On a Road to Kilimanjaro


I was sitting next to Aubrey Kachinque, Africa's first modern novelist who was now the happily retired managing director of a Blantyre steam laundry, on an old bus riding up the dizzyingly vertical road to Malawi's Zomba plateau. I don't recall what prompted him to recount his experience on Kilimanjaro sometime in the early 50's, but it made the same claim as mine. Someone had confirmed it, finally. I tried to tell him.

Roughly nine years before our conversation, I was approaching Kilimanjaro from the Kenya side, where I, too, was to see at least some of God. At a left turn on the road that borders Tanzania, mountain filled the windshield and the sky.

The '74 Nissan 4-wheel had holes in the floor and the ceiling, allowing the red dust and rain to enter freely, depending on the weather of the moment. I had booked a cheap safari out of Nairobi, pooled with other travelers who could not afford the new, 1987 air-conditioned Range Rovers to see or, more usually, not to see a brutal police state for the most part successfully conceal itself behind the more widely known, apolitical kind of African wild life: the most beautiful animals in the most beautiful country in the world.

An austere but nature-loving Swedish couple and their one adolescent daughter were continually annoyed with the driver's playing Janet Jackson tapes and smoking Marlboros. A Saudi Arabian couple behind me were generally nonplussed although she, veiled and swirled in turquoise chiffon, would spray perfume when the dust inside the car became thick, and he had an endless supply of Johnnie Walker Black, to which he would, in the evenings, give me free access if I would smoke Marlboro Gold's with him when I drank. (I didn't smoke, but I smoked.) An Italian couple shared the third bench seat in the very back. They were impeccably clean, urban and tailored in safari khaki, but whenever I would turn around, I would see them frowning and gesturing as they muttered "sporchi, sporchi, sporchissimi" (dirty, dirty...). We were all a little caked in mud.

The other passengers and the driver indulged me, even when I asked if we could stop so that I could pull some feathers off a dead flamingo or disappear behind a hill to find a stream full of hippopotamuses and, I found out almost too late, their usual sidekicks, crocodiles.

I sat next to the window, behind the driver and with the mother and daughter. For the most part I looked out and took notes in a little pad. The writing looked more like the chart of an erratic heart beat than letters because the ride was, to be euphemistic, bumpy. I was considered weird, of course, because I was traveling alone, writing and obviously not all there. I was still years away from a new life, the woman who would make me new, in love with her and our four children. In retrospect, I'd say I knew next to nothing; certainly nothing about the political horrors of Kenya. My first wife had died four years before; our son had died, too; I was unconsciously fleeing an abusive girl friend and afraid that I might even want to become a Cistercian monk, voluntarily overstuffed with twenty years of mostly European learning, reading, vaguely hoping I might meet someone romantically for sex, only wanting to not know where I was and see beauty and writing poetry as a result, like "Red."

      I root in the blood as it pounds

      Within the womb skull of spirit and earth

      The first breath and taste of birth

      And the last of rebirth, the ochre vein

      Of night music running through the gray thorn

      Of flesh, the red eyes in the cave

      Painting their fires blue beneath

      The red other side of the black

      Rock of God and rainless, fetal death.

More of the poetry discussed in "On a Road to Kilimanjaro" appears in CHARLES CANTALUPO'S Anima/l Wo/man and Other Spirits (Peterborough [UK]: Spectacular Diseases, 1996). He has also written books on Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Thomas Hobbes. He lives 200 yards north of the grave of one of the 20th-century's paragon's of literary brevity: H.D.