Book Talk - A Namibian Fascination

I have just finished reading Counting Teeth by Peter Midgley – what a journey!

Peter, a Canadian citizen since 1999 went back to Namibia, the country of his birth, accompanied by his teenage daughter, Sinead, and he embarked on a carefully-mapped out journey across the country, also visiting Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana.

Now let me say this, as one who has travelled across Namibia and who has also travelled in South Africa and Zimbabwe, travel in Africa is not for the faint-hearted and Peter’s aplomb as well as his determination to find all the far-flung places on his itinerary, is to be greatly admired.

The trip was a test of courage and endurance simply from a logistical point of view and then there was the emotional toll as childhood places were revisited, along with haunting gravesites and ghostly battlefields.

Peter’s descriptions of each place are so powerful that you feel as if you are right there with him, and his commentary of the countryside had me aching to go back for a visit.

But much more than a travelogue, Peter’s story is about man, morality and war.

He and I grew up at the same time and I love what he says here: “I am part of a muddled generation, the lost generation, the wounded generation.”

He and I come from such a legacy of complicated shame and unfathomable war – how to make sense of it?

For my part, I had always wanted to write about Africa, write a book that spoke to the shame, and that tried to answer the elusive question of how – how could all of that have happened? How could all it have gone on in my lifetime and why did I not do more to throw myself into the path of its injustice and make it stop?

The idea for my book, The Witchdoctor’s Bones, came to me on my father’s farm in the wild foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains, near the Sani Pass in Lesotho.

I had just returned from a trip to Namibia and I had learned much about the San there, but I had no idea that the San had, in fact, also lived in the very place that my father had a farm, and you can imagine my astonishment when this was revealed to me in my research. It was one of those gifts from the writing gods and I knew that I simply had to write the book, and that it would be my tribute to Africa, it would be my effort to try to understand.

When I began my research, I was astonished and horribly shocked by how deep the cruelty ran – I had no idea of the numbers killed in the Namibian genocide – why had the world never been told in such a way that they could not help but pay attention? How could this have been so silently swept under the rug?

I wanted to put all my findings into my novel but mine is a work of fiction, a psychological thriller that follows a group of travellers who journey across Namibia with murderous intent.

I tried, as much as I could, to flesh out the novel with history of the place but I had to cut out a lot of the facts and the historical content, which nearly broke my heart.

But it’s so important to have all those facts, I said to my editors. People should know! Well, then, came the reply, write another book, an historical book. Yours is a novel, you can layer the story with fact and folklore but you cannot drown it, you cannot make this book of yours into two things.

And now, Peter has written that ‘other’ book, the one that I wished mine could also be, although I lay no claim to have his ability to imagine and achieve this particular work; his is a fascinating and unique voice that I do not pretend could be mine.

While his and my book are very different to one another, it is quite wonderful, and interesting really, that two books about Namibia have been published in Canada in one year, and both are journeys.

Far from being a dry historical read, Counting Teeth is utterly fascinating and beautifully and lovingly told, and the people that Peter meets are so interesting in their own ways, and it makes you see how truly diverse this world of ours is.

“Nothing dies that is remembered,” is a quote that I love (the origin of which I cannot find, so if anyone reading this post knows, please let me know!) and Peter’s book is indeed an homage to remembering.

Peter says: “How do we move forward from this – this war? I have tried for twenty years to understand. It is not about understanding, I sometimes think.” And I agree with him.

The more research I did, the more I knew and the less I understood. But perhaps knowing is more important than understanding. To know and then to do, to take action.

Desmond Tutu says this: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

There are times in life when you want to shout out about injustice and tell the world, look, this is what happened, this wrong thing happened, you should know! You, who goes about your Starbucks day, paying ten dollars for a sandwich, you should know. At the very least, the very least, you should know.”

And what better way to get the world to know than to read a book? And what better way to tell the world than to write a book? Sometimes it is the very least that we can do but it is a start.
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Lisa writes, reads and blogs from time to time...

Lisa de Nikolits
My goodness... we are already well into 2018! Where does the time go?
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