Where We’ve Been : NATIVE STRANGER; A Black American’s Journey Into the Heart of Africa, <i> By Eddy L. Harris (Simon & Schuster: $22; 315 pp.)</i>
I feared that Eddy Harris’ “Native Stranger” might be some idealistic polemic extolling the virtues of a homeland that has been torn from Black America, a political doctrine telling me that I should (or could) return to a history that has been denied me for centuries.
Then, too, it didn’t seem that yet another travel book in the late 20th Century could be important. Who cares about a collection of journal entries describing exotic cities, customs and country life? There’s too much happening in the world. We’re all too interconnected and interdependent to see some far-off exotic land and say, “Oh my, how interesting.” The realities of our world are AIDS, the disappearing ozone layer, nuclear proliferation and the disintegration of the old empires. Knowledge of the world is a matter of survival, if not for us, then for our neighbors, our children, our culture.
But the title was interesting. It spoke of Blackamerican life, not only abroad but at home. So I decided to read the book thinking that it might make an interesting addition to the literature of black Americans and our relationship to Africa.
I wasn’t disappointed. Harris is painfully honest about his identity and the loss he feels when he goes “home.” But there is more to this book than racial exploration. For the first time in years I wished that a book went on further, told more truth.
Harris is a middle-class, slightly hypochondriac and fastidious Blackamerican (a word of his own coinage) who hitchhikes, slurps Cokes and schleps his way from Morocco to South Africa. Much of his journeying is done on foot or in the back of native pick-up trucks. He eats what the common people eat and he sleeps where they sleep. He takes us places that Club Med would never dare. And when he’s through we feel the fever of this foreign continent and the rhythms of this fragile earth.
Harris understands that an external journey implicates the inner life. His knows that his roots are in Africa. Roots that were violently hacked off centuries ago. Roots that have weak echoes in music, genetic appearance and folklore. He goes to Africa not to regain his heritage but to see what he has lost. We experience modern Africa and that loss. Somewhere between the two there is a glimpse of deep African pathos and love.
The journey starts in Morocco, in the bosom of Islam. The Arabs open their doors and their hearts to Eddie. He’s an American, he respects the fast of Ramadan. He learns, and we learn the simple realities of Muslim life. But at the same time we feel frustration with public offices that close because the fast weakens its employees.
Life is hard and the weather is hard. Harris is worn down by the sun and by the fast. By the time he reaches Senegal, the neat-freak doesn’t mind the flies crawling on his food.
The Africa we find is appalling and divine.
On a commuter bus in Gambia, a doctor points at a baby and says, “That baby . . . will be dead before the year is out.” Phones are tapped, the mails are read. There is no freedom but there is plenty of poverty and death.
In Guinea-Bissau, thirst drives Harris to drink suspect water. The sun forces him to run the risks that everyone takes. The risk of hepatitis, dysentery and other debilitating or fatal diseases.
In Mali, we are shown bone-crushing poverty, lepers and a man sitting by the side of the road teasing a three-foot Guinea worm out of his leg.
There’s a village where parasitic worms have caused blindness in over half of the population. The other half wait for blindness.
But still there is love, trust and brotherhood that most Americans never experience. Harris is continually on the verge of poetry when making statements like, “He recognized me as a stranger and called me over.” Mothers can hand their babies to strangers with no fear. Everyone, it seems, is willing to have strangers stay in their homes.
Just when you begin to wonder if the poverty might be worth it you realize that the country you just passed through has been slaughtering people because of their dark skin. You might have died if you had passed that way a day earlier.
Harris is continually avoiding serious trouble because he is an American. This citizenship surrounds him with a fragile bubble of immunity. Even when he is thrown into jail in Liberia he is allowed to sleep outside of the cage reserved for Africans.
And he has money too. When malaria finally hits Eddie he crawls into a five-star hotel to mend. I don’t blame him.
“Native Stranger” is a good book. It has a good heart and an unflinching eye. Harris makes you feel like you are with him in the Sahara, in the rain forest. He tells you the history of the countries he visits in passing as somebody might on a long voyage, in between adventures. The narrative isn’t pretentious or sly. There is no political ax; maybe a moral one now and then.
“Native Stranger” is an important book. It’s a book about survival. It’s a book about suffering. It’s a book about the future. I suggest that everyone read it while considering the world they live in.