Letter from Alkebulan: Obscured by Clouds

I was idly filming on the plane from my window seat the coiling advances of the moving African clouds. Clouds for all I knew obscuring swamp, forest, lake, jungle. How easily we settle for what we see, without any acknowledgement of what lies beneath the surface. Like clouds, we blot out so much.

As the plane descended through the aforesaid clouds, we seemed almost to be gliding. It was not an unpleasant sensation. Suddenly, I caught sight of water. Was that a lone boat on the surface? A solitary fisherman, perhaps? What to me might be strange bird-like fish lurking beneath the surface — such as the Nile tilapia or Nile perch — will be to the fishermen a commonplace. The deeper we get, though, the greater the depth.

As we continued descending, I was trying to work out what shadows I was seeing were real — ones made by the clouds — and what in fact were small islands. The abstract shapes reminded me of the artist.

The landing was painless, if late. A man with a stick hobbled with a smile down the narrow aisle of the plane, wearing a colourful African suit, greeting everyone and everything. I considered it a privilege to carry his unavailingly bright red bag, especially down the slightly wobbling steps leading to the awaiting hot tarmac.

At the official frontier, several hundred yards inside the terminal building, I was asked to present my passport to a uniformed man sat behind glass like a challenging moment of conceptual art — somewhere between Marina Abramović and Yinka Shonibare. The man’s uniform was immaculate. The subsequent presentation of my passport — brand new, post-Brexit, produced by Thales Group, who are headquartered in France — was followed by a colour-printed visa and the required letter declaring the reasons for my visit. I was then asked to show my yellow fever certificate, which I withdrew carefully from my inside jacket pocket, as nothing quite fills your pockets as when travelling, and items are forever falling out.

My photograph and fingerprints were taken, and a second, smaller visa printed — mugshot and all — and attached to my passport. The man took great pleasure with the adhesive backing. He seemed determined to leave it as flat as a rare desert pancake — I was now good to enter.

My first night in the second African country of the trip was spent in an old-style guesthouse with mosquito nets draped like history over the bed, and a highly communicative bird in a tall tree. (The net actually reminded me to take that day’s malaria pill.) The bird meanwhile was sounding off as if for all birdkind. I made a specious note that one bird in the tree is louder than a flock in the sky. Whatever that meant. (I knew.)

Luckily, I was with an expert on the region. I had hoped as a result to be meeting someone there but this was no longer possible. (There is nothing more restless than a person trying to get their country back.) It is necessary for such people to flit about, the rock too hot for bare feet at times.

I kept hearing what I thought were monkeys, though the building was only slightly off the beaten track. It had been built as a family home for an African man — a forester — whose wife was Scottish. The construction, as far as I could understand, was a hundred or so years old. I could feel the plants creak with yearning, as if oozing with fertility, even screaming with never heard joy. Didn’t Werner Herzog say, on another continent, in his case in the South American jungle, something about the plants all fornicating there? There also used to be years ago seaplanes near this spot, landing on the water like giant white birds. Now, it was as if they had all migrated away.

First light the next day was bright, already warm, dappled, through the trees. I was ready for my own migration thirty miles southward. With nature’s many cacophonies still ringing in my ears, I was soon on the road again. (‘Hit the road, Jack,’ as late homeless person Pam used to sing to me in London’s Soho whenever she left with some change.) I have to say: the coolish air through the car window was welcomed. The soil by the roadside was an attractive ocherous red and the vegetation so green it gave the impression of Arcadia. The scents alone were gorgeous.

Next, we passed a yellow and black sign across the road, telling drivers ‘Slow down on a rainy day’ like a line from a song. Later, uncomfortably white mannequins advertising bright coloured dresses began appearing at regular intervals. Motorbikes carrying up to three people drove past. One man on the back of a moving truck stood on a wide mound of soil with a shovel in his hand — it was impressive how he kept his balance.

As we entered the capital, the driver double-locked the doors. Cages of live chickens announced themselves like unfair game from roadside markets. Pick-up trucks carrying beaten carpets threaded their way through the gridlock. Men stood by these tangles of slow-moving vehicles, selling small tyres, snakeskins, hand-carved musical intruments. One multi-coloured van thumpingly advertised a local radio station: ‘THE #1 NAME IN MUSIC.’ At roundabouts, crowds squeezed past our vehicle so tightly, it was like the world was about to crush us all.

A few hours later, on a rain-washed set of green seats in the grounds of the hotel, sat a man who had come to see us. He was another person unable because of conflict to return to his country. He proceeded to stir five large spoonfuls of sugar in his cup of coffee — I counted — and offered what felt to me like 5000 illuminating thoughts. Fortunately for me, he possessed this remarkable ability to make great complexities clear.

I couldn’t help but think how often we talk of people fleeing conflict but so rarely while also covering the determination of many to go back. The gist of the film I so badly want to make is one of displaced people planning precisely such a progressive return. In this instance, a mission made harder by fighting continuing to spread, including in the past week to a major aid hub. Some reports were suggesting that this was forcing at least another 15,000 on the road.

All of the people I am meeting wish to return to their homeland. They want this to be done in the name of fresh, still to be shaped, not insurmountable, peace.

For these people, it is akin to confronting a tall and impossibly steep mountain, then climbing it, then reaching the top, then enjoying the view, then ascending to the bottom again, as if in triumph — the triumph representing the peace which until recently they thought they had secured — only to find a brand new mountain has popped up again, which they have to climb all over again — if they wish to survive. There is so much bad blood. There are so many wretched feelings of enmity and bitterness, which need to be overcome. But there is also among the people I am meeting a unifying focus on non-violence.

On the outside wall close to my room, I saw the largest snail I had seen in my life. I thought it might be pursuing me because of the three small snails I had crushed by mistake in London one damp afternoon more than twenty years ago.

I met so many stimulating people over the course of the next few days, including one person from the war zone who had just been on the road for over a week. According to someone who knew him well, he had lost several stones in weight. He had also lost his position for a major aid organisation now no longer able to function inside the country. He spoke quietly and with great seriousness. What kind of mentality targets outfits braving it to help you?

Elsewhere, a magnificent family of three I met, including a teenage son, had all been in prison, or assaulted by those fighters. The brave boy for instance had a nail hammered into his heel. He was defiant and positive. Another man working diligently and quietly on human rights had me believe that the perpetrators of this violence really could one day be made accountable for their deeds.

Popping back, days later, to the first African country, I was confronted by what could have been Russians on the bus carrying passengers back to the terminal. One of them was vaping furiously, reminding me of the American on a helicopter in Michael Herr’s ‘Dispatches’ determined never to be blown out of any helicopter. There were also four Americans on the bus, dressed in neo-hippy outfits, studiously footloose and fancy-free, as well as very funny.

Finally, there are so many Man Utd — Manchester United — fans on this wonderful continent. So many fans in general. I mean, taxi drivers listening to soccer matches all the time, children watching them through windows, hotel staff while wiping tables.

Sometimes when I am watching ‘the beautiful game’, I think wouldn’t it be great if all conflict could be resolved with 22 sportsmen or women playing on a perfect rectangle of green?

If I said this, of course, people might think I have my head in the clouds.

Peter Bach lives in London.