Lessons from Africa: Stay in the Light


Everyone should go to Africa. It is some relief to go where there are still things that would eat you. Ironically, when you do go, you will sleep like a child, deep and long. It is as if you have returned home, as if the land were firmer, older, deeper. And all of that is true.

It is also some relief to realize that your instincts are stunningly narrow, dulled, blunted, out of touch and barely even yours. You will tiptoe through the fall underbrush, being careful to step on nothing that might crack or snap. You will imagine the Iroquois of your imagined soul, knees bent, intent to creep slightly closer to the three elephants for a better photo. And your very sense of hunter self will break like a cheap ornament when the elephant you neither sensed nor heard bellows a few steps behind you. Having done its own sleuthing.

You will almost go to the water’s edge, the extraordinary Lake Tanganyika, the water dated at 40,000 years, and you will only want to wash your face. You cannot see the crocodiles but they know, one of you is going to forget and think only to wash their face.

But that is not this story. This story is that you would never, late at night, walk into a dark alley. You are not a fool, even if the alley is a much closer route. We had been out on safari for two weeks. We needed washing machines and a bar and electricity. We needed some civilization, some banter, a few waiters and waitresses, tables with settings, even some internet. This was a true African trailer park, with some of the loveliest Mercedes tour buses and camping rigs ever assembled.  A great rest.

We pulled in in late afternoon and set up our camp on a wide circle of 14 low tent bed mats, with the fire in the center. There were three low-watt lights at the perimeter. Our interests were washing machines, showers, and the bar. And then dinner. It was a true park, with perhaps 100 other campsites all nearby. You stay up, and tell or even better hear stories, but eventually the forces finish you to bed.

I had left two little kids back in Seattle. At some point that night, I was awakened by the cries of two young children, wails of what sounded like two-year-olds. I tried to skip it, but I could hear the parents, and the kids only got worse. After tossing more, I decided, foolishly, to get up. I was not going to sleep and, crazy as it sounds, maybe I could help, I am good with kids. 

I slipped out of my sleeping bag, no one else seemed to be stirring or affected, and grabbed my toothbrush and hand towel and headed for the well, just outside the light of our camp, 20 yards away. I had boxer shorts, and a tee shirt and set out to brush my teeth, wash my face, and see if I could help the neighbors. 

Just as I stepped out of the light from our camp into the slight shadow, a lion, off to the left, let out a low growl. We were in a genuine trailer park and the last thing on my mind was a lion camping there as well. I was five yards from the well but the growl — it took all of me, it froze all of my leg muscles, and shoulders, and hopes. It had nothing to do with knowing what to do, I had no idea what to do. I had, as I suddenly knew, nothing. I had a toothbrush.

I never looked. I turned around, and I walked shaking my head NO back to my little tent, knowing that at any moment something could wipe me off the face of what I was. I knew so little and had so little and there was no one. I literally got back into my sleeping bag, in my circle. I scrunched up, waited for nothing, and went to sleep, my best hope.

In the early morning, I went over to our guide, the wonderful Justin. I said, I had a problem. He said, Yes, two females. I heard it but it was complicated. I can show you where they were, their tracks. They came when they heard the babies cry. They hoped one of them might have crawled loose. You got in the way and screwed up the chances. 

By then, it was morning, and breakfast, and all of the trailer park had come alive. The lions do not hunt in the bustle of breakfast. Nor hang around the theater.

Peter Miller
Peter Miller
Peter Miller runs the Peter Miller Design Bookshop, in Pioneer Square, in the alley between First Avenue and Alaska Way. He is there, every day. He has written three books, Lunch at the Shop, Five Ways to Cook, and How to Wash the Dishes. A fourth book, Shopkeeping, A Manual, will be published in Spring 2024, by Princeton Architectural Press.


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