Why Africa? Why Uganda? That is the question I ask myself, and the question others ask of me when I speak about my forthcoming novel, set for the most part more than twelve thousand kilometres from where I was born. And in the pause between that question and my answer, some deep current takes me back to sitting in a hot primary school classroom, analogue clock above the blackboard and maps on the walls.
Of all things, it is those maps that held me. While Sister Celine droned on about spelling and how to wear one’s uniform, I stared at the great swathes of pink with a heartbeat in the middle of Africa. Blue rivers like veins; natural borders, and the blue eye of Lake Victoria unblinkingly set beneath the brow of Uganda, since it was those maps that allowed something else to happen in me when otherwise I would have fidgeted in my wooden desk in another place named Victoria, Australia, THE WORLD—as I had so wonkily written on the cover of my Level Five spelling book.
The largest map I remember was a wall atlas of the British Empire, the other was of the British Commonwealth which I understood was how things were “now.” I might mention at this point that I did not attend a very progressive school or at least not a school that espoused any notions as radical as a republic.
Like so many others I am a product of colonialism. The Tudor rose-pink of the English monarchy—where at one time it was said: The sun never sets because across an empire so extensive there was always at least one part of its territory in daylight—was precisely where I found myself.
I paid particular attention to those other pink hued countries, Canada, India, New Zealand, just to name a few, as well as the scatterings of islands throughout the pacific, but it was the carving up of Africa that drew me. The so-called scramble grabbed in the wake of the Berlin conference in the 1880s and followed by two world wars, fraught postcolonial independences, armed nationalist struggles and the rise of military regimes in whose aftermath former British territories still saw themselves as belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations.
Why these divisions, why the alliances? Why the boundaries?
Around about the same time as I was sitting in that stuffy classroom, The Troubles were brewing in another tiny pocket of pink. Fed by historical grievances to become a new version of terrorism, and even as they appeared to be on the same side, my Irish ancestors were now fighting viciously. These arguments extended to our dinner table and I suspect it is this early education in civil unrest which is in part the reason why conflict has always been my subject.
There are all kinds of maps. Those that determine who holds power and who does not; those that tell certain truths or represent mythologies, others that simply lie. There are gerrymandering and propaganda maps and maps that have been with us for thousands of years. The Imago Mundi More, more commonly known as the Babylonian Map of the World is considered the oldest surviving world map and is inscribed on a clay tablet that can fit in the palm of a large hand. There are the exquisite medieval gold maps, including the famous Catalan Atlas which dates back to the fourteenth century when King Mansa Musa’s gold stores were so abundant that the price of gold plummeted; maps on which you can see Africa skirting south and blending into Asia, slave routes that changed the world forever.
Nowadays, there are political maps, ethnolinguistic maps, geographical, climate change, and land use maps. Maze-like, what they tell us is manifold, and yet there is a great deal that is cryptic or which they fail to record and that too fascinates, since it is the very thing that plunges us into the unknown, into a story whose ending has not yet been revealed. Even when we have Google Earth where you can see your own house, maps on our smartphones which track us as we move and where we can frame ourselves within narrow convivence of a few city streets, we can still miss what is around the corner.
My father who was a cattleman and had been a drover in his teens knew the stars as maps and how many hours of daylight were left from the position of the sun in the sky. ‘We all need homing trails,’ he might say and there is something distinctly comforting in that. Wayfinding, a word people use a lot nowadays, is said to encompass the methods whereby ‘people and animals orient themselves in physical space as well as navigate from place to place,’ but how do we negotiate around those divisions between and within nations? What does it mean to be at war in one’s own country? Or within one’s own home? For there is another landscape we often try to map; the landscape of family. We have genealogies depicted as family trees, family crests and inherited names, but within the realm of day-to-day existence we have no clear map for how to live in this world unless it is story. Plot mapped onto character or more interestingly, characters pushing the boundaries of plot because their decisions differ.
It could be said that all writing starts out as map-less, that for much of the time it is feeling one’s way in the dark, but bit by bit those marks on the page begin to take shape, and what was limitless begins to have form, and then, delightfully if you are on the right track, what at first lay on the edge of imagination becomes something which is communicable.
The other thing my father did well once he became an auctioneer and stock and station agent was to increase the value of something by storytelling. Before the, ‘All done, all sold!’ there needed to be a yarn, an anecdote, and when he was at the top of his game, a joke. The ideas that make us stop in our tracks and engage us can also result in connection. Not everything connects, not everything engages but those maps, flat and still launched a curiosity in me and with it an association. Why Australia? Why Africa and specifically Uganda? Before I ever had the opportunity to experience Africa’s sounds, smells, diverse cultures or incredible dislocating beauty, it was that moment when, while looking at those old tattered maps on a classroom wall, I was taken outside of myself, taken outside of my own country, my world. When Africa and in fact the rest of the globe became real to me.
I don’t think we can ever predict what’s going to influence us, or fully understand the drive that makes us want to get on a plane or walk in a particular direction except perhaps for the great pull towards that which lies outside of what we are yet to comprehend.
*Babylonian Map of the World, Present location British Museum, (BM 92687)