London, July 2003.
IT BEGAN WITH A LETTER, as stories sometimes do. A letter that arrived one day three winters ago, bearing a stamp with a black and white kingfisher, the damp chill of the outside air, and the postmark of a place from which no letter had arrived for a decade or more. A country that seemed to have disappeared, returned to an earlier time, like the great unfilled spaces on old maps here once map makers drew illustrations of mythical beasts and untold riches. But of course the truth is this story began centuries ago, when horsemen descended to the plains from a lost kingdom called Futa Djallon, long before Europes map makers turned their minds to the niggling problem of how to fill those blank spaces.
A story comes to mind. A story I have known for years, it seems, though I have no memory now of who is was who told it to me.
Five hundred years ago, a caravel flying the colours of the King of Portugal rounded the curve of the continent. She had become becalmed somewhere around the Cape Verde Islands, and run low on stocks, food and water. When finally the winds took pity on her, they blew her south-east towards the coast, where the captain sighted a series of natural harbours and weighed anchor. The sailors, stooped with hunger, curly haired from scurvy, rowed ashore, dragged themselves through shallow water and on up the sand where they entered the shade of the trees. And there they stood and gazed about themselves in disbelief. Imagine! Dangling in front of their faces: succulent mangoes, bursts of starfruit, avocados the size of a mans head. While from the ends of their elegant stalks pineapples nodded encouragingly, sweet potatoes and yams peeped from the earth, and great hands of bananas reached down to them. The sailors thought they had found no less a place than the Garden of Eden.
And for a time thats what Europeans thought Africa was. Paradise.
The last time I thought about that story was a week after the letter came. By then I had left Londonthe city I now call hometo retrace the letters route to the place from where it had come and beyond. I was standing in a forest just like the one the sailors had stumbled into. And I remembered how in the early morning I used to watch my grandmothers, my grandfathers wives, leave their houses and make their way, down the same path upon which I was standing, towards their gardens. One by one each woman parted from her companions and went to her own plot, whose boundaries were marked by an abandoned termite hill, a fallen tree, and upright boulder. There, among the giant irokos, the sapeles and the silk-cotton trees of the forest, she tended the guavas, pawpaws and roseapples she had planted there. Then she weeded her yams and cassava where they grew in the soft, dark earth and watered the pineapple plant that marked the centre of her plot.
I thought of the sailors story. And for a long time, I thought it was just that. A story. About how Europeans discovered us and we stopped being a blank space on a map. But months later, after the letter arrived and I traced its arc and came to land with a soft thud in an enchanted forest, and after I had listened to all the stories contained in this book and written them down for you, that one story came back to me. And I realised the story was really about something else. It was about different ways of seeing. The sailors were blind to the signs, incapable of seeing the pattern or logic, just because it was different to their own. And the African way of seeing: arcane, invisible yet visible, apparent to those who belong.
The sailors saw what they took to be natures abundance and stole from the womens gardens. They thought they had found Eden, and perhaps they had. But it was an Eden created not by the hand of God, but the hands of women.
Excerpted from Ancestor Stones, (c) 2006 by Aminatta Forna. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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