A Writer Writes
by Bob Criso (Nigeria 1966-67, Somalia 1967-68)
My fascination with Africa began when my brother-in-law, Harry, gave me his old stamp collection after he married my sister, Mildred. I was nine years old. It was those East African stamps that fired my imagination at the time — giraffes, flamingoes, and exotic flowers on stamps from places like Tanganyika, Rhodesia, and Madagascar. It sent me to the encyclopedia for my first independent study of geography.
In high school, it was the independence movements of the late fifties and early sixties that caught my interest. European colonies in Africa struggling for autonomy and self-government. I was rooting for Kwame Nkrumah and Ghana all the way. Back to the encyclopedia for another independent study, this time in history. Years later, I realized how much these movements paralleled my own struggles for independence at home.
After I took a course in African History in college, the die was cast. I was like a horse chompping at the bit, anxious to run the race. I applied to the Peace Corps, asking for an assignment in sub-Saharan Africa. A year later my flight from JFK landed in Lagos. It was 1966. Within a year at my post, I felt like I had become a part of African history after getting caught in the chaos and madness of the devastating Nigerian civil war.
Since then, I’ve lived in, visited or traveled through numerous countries in Africa yet, for various reasons, I always missed the one that I found the most interesting — South Africa. Blacks, whites, mixed race, Hindus, Lebanese, European refugees, apartheid, British, Dutch, Boers, — there was so much to learn. Reading novels like J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” and seeing plays like Athol Fugard’s “Master Harrold and the Boys” made South Africa’s political and cultural conflicts come alive with real people that I could feel things about and relate to in some way.
I had planned on going to Cape Town during one of my Nigerian vacation breaks, but I was advised against it by Peace Corps brass. It was the sixties and Peace Corps volunteers were seen as hippies and druggies who fraternized with blacks and were liable to cause political embarrassment. If they only knew I was a naive, clean-cut boy from conservative Staten Island, not Abbie Hoffman.
The following years were filled with graduate school, marriage, career, divorce and other world travel so that by the time I reached my seventies, I had seen much of the world but had still not set foot in South Africa. I yearned for Cape Town but worried about security issues and tourist traps. When I visit a country I need to walk the neighborhoods, take buses and subways, get lost, ask directions, stumble upon some unknown gem. It was my way of meeting people when I traveled alone. But it was now or never, an uncompleted corner of my curiosity map. I booked a flight to Cape Town, splitting the long flight from New York with a few days to explore Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
I was immediately dazzled by the extraordinary beauty in and around Cape Town, definitely the most beautiful city I had ever seen. (Rio second.) I was turned off by the tourist district and the kind of commercial and frequently inauthentic entertainment venues that play to group tours. Even sacred Robbin Island was a package deal. Hey, I needed a grittier experience, or, had the world changed so much and I was just a dinosaur stuck in the past?
I stayed in a hotel outside the tourist district, but I never really felt relaxed when walking the streets. Newspapers were filled with articles about street crime and it was a frequent topic of conversation among locals. I met a white South African couple who had stopped on the coastal highway when they saw an accident on the road only to find automatic weapons held to their heads. A common ruse apparently. They lost their money and their car – the husband almost lost his life. One day, I asked a public security guard if would be safe to walk to the Convention Center. He looked at me with a cautionary eye and said, “You’re old and you’re alone. You’re an easy target.”
None of this is to say, I didn’t enjoy checking out the museums, cafes, restaurants or just strolling around. It just always had an edge that encouraged me to be well-informed and hyper-vigilant. A side trip to Stellenbosh, up the coast, was a stunning drive visually that ended in a town that looked like a movie set. Oak-shaded streets, lined with cafes, museums, book stores, historic churches and boutiques. Nearby were gorgeous vineyards and Stellenbosch University, traditionally an Afrikaans school but now diversified with English and Xhosa spoken as well.
The one experience that remains deeply etched from that trip came from a most unexpected source. Eager to see one of the townships outside Cape Town, I heard about a man who took visitors through his home township in a van. Four people were signed up, two female artists from Boston and a couple from Scotland. I was number five.
Visually, the drive through the township was grim and depressing, worse than I had imagined and a disturbing reminder of South Africa’s tragic history. How was this kind of grinding poverty still possible in a country that possessed such enormous wealth in gold and diamonds? Despite it all, the spirit of the individuals we encountered was always friendly and welcoming — burdened people who retained a basic humanity.
At one point, the van driver asked, “Is anyone interested in meeting with a shaman?” Figuring it was some kind of pre-arranged, hokey set-up for money, I was the first to respond, “I’ll pass.” The four others followed suit. Ten minutes later, after thinking about it, I changed my mind and spurted out, “You know, I’d like to meet the shaman.” The Boston artists agreed, the Scots declined. Who doesn’t secretly want to know something about themselves that they can’t see themselves? It was like playing a game, but what the hell.
The shaman’s house was a ramshackle sight with a television blaring inside, connected by a jumble of wires hanging over the front entrance. Adjacent to the house was a kind of hut where he practiced his shamanism. The hut itself was another world, dark and filled with animal skins, bones, masks, feathers, colorful pieces of cloth, twigs, blankets and a small fire in the middle with the smell of incense. The shaman went on at length, mumbling as if invoking spirits, sprinkling some kind of liquid, speaking some kind of language I couldn’t make out but never looking at me. It was rather lengthy and skeptical me just watched, listened and waited. When he finished, he looked at me and said: (in summary)
— You have done well in life but you are not at peace with yourself.
— You need to come to terms with your parents.
— Your mother is watching over you and wants you to be happy.
— When is the last time you saw your parents?
“Many years. They’re dead now.”
— When is the last time you went to the cemetery?
“A long time ago.”
After a pregnant pause, he continued:
— Go to the cemetery. It’s time to forgive them. It’s holding you back in some way.
Then he went through some more incantations before asking:
— What did you parents drink?
Another pause, then:
— I want you to buy a bottle of red wine and three new glasses. Go to the cemetery and drink some wine with them. Pour their wine over the grave. Forgive them and let them go.
It all seemed fairly generic at first, true for maybe a lot of people. Still, he hit a vulnerable point and I was inclined to go along with it. Even if it was a scam (the three of us gave him a generous tip,) it seemed like maybe an opportunity for me to process some unfinished family business.
That night I had dinner with the women from Boston. We wanted to compare shaman stories to see if he told each of us the same kind of thing. He didn’t. Each of theirs was more focused on career and personal relationship issues.
When I got back to New York, I thought about the whole thing for a while, then decided to do it. What’s to lose, right? Getting to the cemetery on Staten Island would be challenging, but my friend, Betsy, has a car and offered to drive me when she heard the story. I told her I needed to be alone at the grave, but there was a zoo nearby. She loves zoos.
Before going to the cemetery, I wrote out everything I wanted to say on seven pages of a yellow legal pad. I bought wine and new glasses. I was anxious when the day arrived and we weaved through traffic on the Verrazzano Bridge to get there. The grave scene, however, was not the somber, quiet, cinematic experience than I anticipated. The grave was near the main road with a lot of noisy traffic passing. A caretaker was driving a grass cutter the whole time so it was like a helicopter buzzing around me all the time. It was an exceptionally windy day with lots of grass clippings and dust flying around the tombstones and my flapping yellow pages.
All of the above did not deter me. I poured the wine, drank my portion, then emptied the other two glasses over the grave. I found a small can in a trash basket filled with dead flowers, emptied it and burned the seven pages in front of the tombstone. I put the three glasses close to the gravestone.
And I left.
There were no tears, just a quiet gravity, and introspection on the drive back to Manhattan. It wasn’t magic or voodoo but rather an opportunity to complete a family chapter.
In the weeks and months that followed, I found myself less preoccupied with family issues as if they had less of a hold on me. It had freed me up to focus on other more immediate things in my life.
Africa was always an enriching experience for me, despite the frequent daunting challenges whenever I was there — this time, for probably the last time,
But Africa, the birthplace of us all, delivered again.
Bob Criso (Nigeria 1966-67, Somalia 1967-68) was a psychotherapist at Princeton University Psychological Services and also had a private practice in Princeton. Now retired, he lives in New York, writes memoir, does theater reviews and has had seven photography exhibits. email@example.com