Two trips to Africa and visits to six countries there have left me with a trove of memories and stories to tell, along with immense appreciation for the people I met and especially their varied works of art. I found a remarkable similarity with the art I so admire among Native Americans here. It made me think in terms of the world as a giant jigsaw puzzle and wish I could just push together the pieces that are the continents and see how it once looked. Of course all these peoples and races were related. How else to explain a masked dancer made from recycled tin cans that I saw in the National Museum of Mali bearing an incredible – I refrained from saying uncanny – resemblance to a kachina sculpture produced in New Mexico?
My cousin, Dorothy Woodson, recently retired curator of the African collection in the Yale University Library, invited me to accompany her in 2004 and again in 2009 on acquisitions trips as she collected printed materials and other things (it’s referred to as ephemera) like election tee-shirts and posters to be held for safekeeping and used for educational purposes by students and visiting scholars to her university. “Too much time, too much money” was my initial reaction to the first five-week trip to Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso. “You have to go,” Ed said. “It’s too great an opportunity to see those places and to do it with someone so knowledgeable.”
And knowledgeable she certainly is. Going first with her then-husband as Peace Corps volunteers in Swaziland in 1973, she returned to the continent many times, including for extended stays in Swaziland and South Africa. In Swaziland, a U.S. Information Agency fellowship supported her work in locating pre-independence material relating to Swaziland in North America and creating a database at the University of Swaziland. In 1994 a Fulbright Fellowship took her to Cape Town, South Africa, where she was charged with sorting through and archiving voluminous boxes of written materials of Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners on Robben Island across Table Bay. (Mandela spent 17 of his 27 years’ incarceration on Robben Island during South Africa’s notorious apartheid era.) She returned to Cape Town in 1996 on a Fulbright to organize the South African Prison Department files relating to the African National Congress (ANC) “high command” prisoner Ahmed Kathrada.
Our 2004 trip was also initially planned to include a visit to Ghana, but because Ghana Airways was then working its way toward becoming defunct, we stayed 14 days in Burkina Faso, a country we’d originally scheduled three days for. And I spent a good deal of my time there vainly searching for kente cloth, a Ghanian specialty requested by one daughter.
The 2009 trip was briefer, three weeks, and included South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique. Dorothy invited me to accompany her on subsequent trips, including one finally to Ghana but by that time what I’d been calling the Never-Ending Great Recession had hit our family finances and I couldn’t justify leaving my husband home while I went to play in Africa.
A highlight of the first trip was a drive to legendary Timbuktu accompanied by a Tuareg man and a Bambara driver. I thought about them both and all the others we met on that journey during the unrest a few years back in that area and prayed they remain safe. My story of that journey starts off my African Tales; others will follow.
[Photos: left, Tin Sculpture, Mali, artist unknown; right, Hoop Dancer Kachina, Hopi, artist RT]