Not so long ago, I was wandering in what for many people would qualify as a jungle. It was the Mayombe Forest in Cabinda, the small enclave that belongs to the Republic of Angola but is sandwiched between the two Congos. I was with a group of Cabindans, one of whom told me, ‘This is the biggest jungle in the world, stretching from Cabinda all the way through the Congo, and into Gabon. You are now in the biggest jungle in the world.’ Another member of the group disagreed. ‘I think this is as big as the Amazon rain-forest of Brazil,’ he said. Size, for me, has never been the ultimate measure of quality – but I was nevertheless amazed and wowed by Mayombe. During our drive into the thick twisting mass of green and brown and yellow and more green, we stopped and picked up an old man. He was carrying a large machete. ‘This is what we need,’ said the driver, ‘to find the magic tree.’ Half an hour later, the vehicle came to a halt and we all piled out. The old man with the machete and the driver then spoke to each other for several minutes, before leading us off the road and into the forest. The old man with the machete led the way, his arm swinging back and forth as he chopped at the forest to clear a path. He moved at great speed, swift and skillful, such that we never had to break the walk and stand still while he hacked away at the twisting, hanging, writhing flora. We walked and walked and walked. And finally came to a halt beneath a very large tree – a huge tree, so huge that I could not see the top – whereupon we were treated to a short but intense history lesson from one member of our group, aided by the old man.
I was thinking about that day in Cabinda this morning in bed. I was thinking about something someone said to me not so long ago. The words the person spoke were these:
‘It’s a jungle mentality.’
As I understood it, the person was referring to the current politics within the ANC, in particular to the man who had said he would not only die for Jacob Zuma, but he would kill also. Possibly, this person was also referring to the wave of violent xenophobia attacks that swept Johannesburg and other areas in South Africa earlier this year. Anyway, I was thinking about this, this morning, in bed – it was shortly before six – having also read, last night, this essay by Paul Theroux entitled Tarzan is an expatriate. Someone sent the essay to me, saying that my own essay You let her into the house? (published in this new anthology by Rasna Warah, a book most definitely worth buying here) reads as an ‘update’ on Theroux. That was very kind. But I digress, for the Theroux piece is also hinting at the jungle, though – as I understand it – he makes the link between expatriate fantasies and real experiences of ‘Africa as jungle’ and the expatriate role in it as Tarzan or Jane.
To return, though, to the earlier anonymous quotation I provided above, it struck me – as I pondered this person’s analysis of ANC/South Africa politics – that the jungle is of course a highly complex yet delicate eco-system. The person’s statement evidently says so much more about their own (mis)understanding of what a jungle is (a dark, scary place where animals hoot and howl and attack each other for no reason?); says so much more about where they place themselves in relation to that ‘jungle’. Which brings me back to Theroux’s essay, of Tarzan and Jane. And what is so gloomy about all of this is that Theroux wrote his piece forty-one years ago, before I was even born (just), in 1967.
How little things have changed.