In 1956, the largest continent on earth was having convulsions. Some of it was caused by colo-nialists who had stayed too long, some by Africa pushing them out, and all of it was messy. It was the most unlikely a place I would someday call home, but for now I was busy being a student with a pre-med major. I was pretty sure what my future would look like. The day I walked into the Powell Library at UCLA, the French delegation walked out of the United Nations. What was happening in Africa had half the world worried; the other half couldn’t have cared less. I was among the latter half, but soon those events would change my life forever.
The French were worried over increasing restlessness in one of their colonies, a fear things might come apart. Their fear was justified. The whole of Africa was about to come apart, not just the French colony of Algeria. Most whites glibly figured the trouble was born largely of black insubordination and had to be stopped. Africans felt otherwise. They called the growing unrest uhuru, which meant independence and freedom from decades of oppressive colonialism. Africa had started to rumble and it was a movement that could not be stopped
So on that balmy day in autumn, as I walked into my study carrel in the library, the French walked away from Algeria’s desire for independence. It was symptomatic of white attitudes, but such intransigence couldn't stop the chain of events that would follow for all colonial powers. Within four years, 21 former colonial countries would be independent; within six, Algeria would follow. Africa was on a roll that could not be supplicated or stopped. It was the beginning of a wave of independence, and the winds of change would sweep the continent and change the map forever. Colonial colors and names would disappear as new nations were being born.
I knew of no winds of change blowing my way, just the gentle breeze from the Pacific Ocean that graced the campus where I was at the time. Earlier that day, I had been fussing over a parking permit. Unknown to me, nine thousand miles away a young African named Jacob had his own troubles. He had to walk to school through the African bush, dreaming of the day when he might have a bicycle to make it easier. He lived on the other side of the world and the other side of my reality. He lived in a forgotten territory known then as South West Africa. In the years to come, our lives would parallel. Within four years, our paths would cross and we would meet in the most unlikely of circumstances.
As Jacob was trying to borrow a pair of old shoes to make the long walk to his new school hundreds of miles away, I was worrying about where to park my car. Surrounded by the comforts of a modern American university, little did I know my preoccupation with parking my car was petty by comparison. As I was finding a parking garage and lecture hall with all the modern coms, Jacob was preoccupied
with finding a seat in his new class where chairs were few and arriving late meant sitting on the ground. I fussed because a light rain made things unpleasant; where Jacob lived, crops were failing and people were dying because of a prolonged drought. I was annoyed my textbooks cost almost twenty dollars each; Jacob was happy to find a friend who would share his only dog-eared book, the one with many pages missing as he was struggling to get used to the big mission school. For three years, he had gone to a bush school in his village where he learned the alphabet and enough about reading to follow simple stories in his native tongue. He had learned how numbers fit together to do simple addition and subtraction. That classroom had been under a tree. There he had also learned about classroom manners, when to stand, when to sit, how to greet the teacher and be respectful. Tribal life had taught him how to respect everyone else.
Leaving his village and moving to the big mission school had been an ordeal for Jacob. St. Mary’s Mission was weeks away by foot. He had to travel that distance alone, carrying a knapsack of clothes along with a few valued symbols of his learning. Those consisted of a broken pencil, a few pieces of used writing paper and a dog-eared copy of the Church Catechism missing most of the important pages. He had nothing as fine as toiletries, shoes, bed roll or a clean change of clothes. Jacob’s family, like all his friends, was dirt poor but happy. With knapsack over his shoulder, a sling shot and knobkerrie for protection, he began the two-week trek to St. Mary’s Anglican Mission School. Wild berries and roots were his food along the way, and if he were lucky he would bag a small animal with his sling shot.
Thus young Jacob set off on his journey to a foreign land. The first day went well enough because he knew most of the country west of his homeland. As the shadows lengthened and the sun was setting in the west, he looked for a place to bed down, high on a bank overlooking the Okavango River. He had heard stories of this old river, how it came charging down out of Angola to flood his homeland only to disappear into a huge delta in the neighboring country of Botswana. In his studies at the big Mission School he would learn the Okavango was the only river in Africa that doesn’t flow to the sea, but rather inland to supply one of the world’s largest inland deltas. That river brought back a terrible of memory when he and his friends were swimming in it and one of them got pulled under by a crocodile, never to be seen again. In time, he would learn that hundreds of people and animals go the same way every year. He shuddered as he moved a little higher up the bank.
He awoke the next morning to find crocodiles on the river bank, feasting on the remains of a kudu. Desperately hungry, he hoped for a small piece of the action but didn’t risk trying. There was no way a human, especially a small boy, could intimidate crocodiles into moving away from a kill. That day, as he made his way westward, the many footpaths in the sandy forest would be his greatest challenge. Constantly having to decide which one and which way, he usually chose the one most used because they all led somewhere, none for idle adventure. Often he ended up at a neighboring kraal and had to ask for directions. Lucky for him, all the country spoke a similar dialect and the people were invariably helpful.
Failing to snag a piece of the kudu, he took to the trees for his food. Birds were an easy target for a herdboy—he’d been doing that since the age of seven when his father had sent him to look after the cattle. He bagged a fat crow with ease and made that his supper, garnished with wild berries from the forest.
That night he had complications. About midnight, out of the tree high above him, a heavy load suddenly dropped on him. Terrified, he rolled out of his blanket to find six feet of snake on top of him. Historically Africans have been terrified of snakes, and Jacob was no exception; normally, they would beat them to a pulp, even the harmless ones. This one on Jacob wasn’t harmless; it was a tree snake with deadly fangs, but they were at the back of the mouth which made it unlikely to get a fatal bite. Normally green in color to blend in with vegetation, boomslangs stay well above ground unless in search of food on the ground. Jacob slipped out of his blanket and ran to the fire still smoldering, pulled out a log with a glowing ember, and made quick work of the snake. Badly shaken by the whole affair, he slept no more that night. The only good to come out of his night’s adventure was that parts of the snake would be his food supply for the next several days.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that strange travel plans are dancing lessons from God. If that be true, God found some great entertainment in Shannon Mallory, who for 18 years had the strangest travels throughout Africa. These memoirs are the story of those travels, the story of a young man and his family dodging some circumstances beyond belief: being forced out of Namibia when it was under South African occupation; getting black-listed and kicked out of South Africa for courting the “underdog” during the years of apartheid; living in the midst of Idi Amin’s bloody regime in Uganda; and experiencing close brushes with death on many an occasion. Mallory’s account of his years in Africa is colorful and descriptive. He takes the reader on a journey not only of his own but of Africa itself: its history, its people, its spirituality, and its pleasant and unpleasant political past. Shannon writes freely as an insider about the church’s influence on that great continent – much of it negative – and how it has affected not only religious but social and political life there as well, and he calls on the church for accountability for its actions. This book is compelling, informative, enthralling, and raw, a must-read for lovers of Africa, lovers of travel, lovers of political and social justice, and lovers of a good story well told.
About the Author
Going to Africa as a young priest, Mallory encounters two deadly regimes, one in South Africa, one in Uganda. These memoirs are entangled therein, with adventure, survival, new beginnings and thrilling discoveries, finally settling in the peaceful, enlightened democratic Republic of Botswana.