There is a smell of Africa that inflames the nostrils in the morning. It gets stronger as the morning sun rises, swirls around, and surrounds you to the very core. Through its glistening haze, life begins, in all its forms, in a primeval dance for survival. For many, it is the smell of hope, for others, fear, and for a very few, the smell of a day just born, its story still to tell. It was…after all…the smell of Africa, the one many Africans can recognize instantly. But for those uprooted and planted upside down, it was the faint lingering of something familiar, yet unknown, but equally terrifying as it was exciting.
Bertie was that perfect upside down tree. All the roots intact and visible for all to see yet the distraction of his upside-down nature was all anyone else could see. He had worked all his life to cover those roots but still, they kept blazing through, and with the vigor of a just beheaded snake that could not be tamed. But now, it was too late, the tree had to be re-planted by its roots, and for him, that meant a journey all the way back to Africa.
For decades, Bertie had ignored the call of the spirits beckoning him back to Africa. The very same spirits that were present at the moment of his birth, had walked with him through the long grass as a child, and had sat beside him by the cool stream to foretell that he would have a long and winding journey of life. These were the spirits of life that had promised protections against evil so long as he avoided the usual temptations. All this, a long and distant memory, or was it just fanciful imagination of another life, or perhaps, a soul long departed but now returned back to mortal form. Bertie’s intellect, education, and cultured demeanor, had all conspired well to keep those spirits at bay until now, even wondering about the seeming ridiculousness of it all. He was not superstitious but neither could he deny it all…they were back…but for what purpose? Bertie had buried his parents by that same stream long ago, wishing the stream would take his tears away to all the corners of the earth, in the hope of germinating something new that bubbled with new life and promise. Bertie had sworn never to return but to catch the taste of this same stream wherever his life took him, and in whatever place. He was a traveler, and like all travelers on a long journey, pursuing it was all that mattered, and all ahead was adventure that had to be faced with the utmost courage and determination.
Bertie had arrived back on the big bird with red and blue stripes on its tail fin; his favorite airline. He had always marveled at the simple science of air travel so effectively delivered in those magnificent beasts of the air. Bertie loved to watch the landing from the window seat, the wings funneling air backwards, the scream of the tires as they hit the tarmac, and the boom as the engines reversed. All in a coordinated sequence, like a jog rendered into a calming stroll, of complexity simplified, then accelerated, just like his favorite piano concerto in A minor by Edvard Grieg (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKfGDqXEFkE) that heralds a bright new beginning in a distant land. Bertie was somewhere between home and nowhere.
Bertie had a simple task in Africa. He had come to visit old relatives about to depart on an even longer and permanent journey, visit his ancestral home, and to fulfill a promise to his sister to return just one more time before he said goodbye again, never to return. Just two days on the ground – what could possibly go wrong? He was picked up at the airport by a distant relative. Alarmingly, there was precious little space left in the SUV after all the armed body guards had piled in. Bertie had an aversion to guns. “Welcome back Bertie” said Ednut “never thought I would see the day. As you can see, I came prepared, and guarantee your complete safety. We are like the Kennedy’s of America here – not even a tiny scratch anywhere by the time you leave”. Traffic was simply murder. Snarling, ponderous, and the most dangerous low speed crawl Bertie had ever experienced. Moreover, as the city neared, there was a distant hum, like a swarm of locusts, all in dyssynchrony permeating the SUV – how could anyone concentrate in all of this white noise? Bertie would later learn that this sound came from personal diesel generators due to the inconsistent power supply to private homes. And, as the front window was cracked open to purchase refreshment from a street vendor – that smell returned to inflame his nostrils.
Bertie must have dozed off as he did not recall how long it took to drive to his ancestral home. “Here we are” boomed Ednut in a low baritone voice “I shall be back for you in a few hours. Don’t wander around too much”. Bertie disembarked. Nothing seemed familiar as he pushed his way past the rusty gates. Somehow by accident, he saw a shadowy figure in the door way. He wiped his eyes. Was this a statue or a real person he thought to himself. As he approached, the figure, formally crouched, started to stand. Still, he was unrecognizable to Bertie. But as Bertie got closer, he felt a clinging feeling in his throat but he could not place it. This was weird he thought to himself. The figure, now fully erect, was a greying old man with a cane of about four score years. His voice was both wispy and raspy at the same time. “Welcome home, Bertie. I have waited for quite some time to see you again. You left us as a child and now, you are a full-grown man. I knew you would return” said the figure. By his cane and demeanor, Bertie worked out that this must have been the night watchman who had worked for his parents all those years ago. Bertie hugged him but the figure was uncomfortable and drew away after a short embrace. “Now, my job is done, and I can leave in peace” he said. Bertie, now more awake than ever, started to speak – “I am not sure how to begin but why are you here? This house was abandoned years ago, and its past has long been confined to history”. The figure replied – “I have waited almost fifty years to see you again. And I am tired. I have kept my promise to guard the house for you until you returned. It was a promise I made to your parents. They knew you would return some day. Look into the garden, you will see the coconut tree that I helped you plant as a child. That tree is special. Before that, nothing would grow past waist high on this land. But your parents believed that your tree would grow”. “And what was so special about this coconut tree” asked Bertie. The figure continued: “legend has it that this house was built on land that had seen some suffering, and all that restlessness must have pervaded the soil, making it hard to germinate life. Ever since you were a young boy, you loved the church, and it seemed that happy glow might just make this place work. Not only did your tree grow but so did your sister’s and the path of life was restored to this land.” “But why did you not take another job – even next door where your services would be needed, and you could still watch over this land?” Bertie quizzed. “Because, even the fiercest of dogs cannot guard two houses at the same time” replied the figure. “I shall tell you the story you need to hear. Long ago, when I was a child of about the same age as when you left, my parents also departed and I was hungry and wondered around the streets. One day, I had wondered into the market and I could not help it anymore. I was so hungry that I stole some biscuits from a stall, and as I was running away, your mother caught me. She did not get angry but listened to my story. Your mother did not work in the market but spent one day a week there providing medical care and support to the women there. You cannot imagine what that meant to all those women. But that was not the point of my story. From the day she found me, to this day, I have been loyal to this house. And it has been good to me”. Bertie could not believe that here, in this corner of the earth, he had met someone he could call a true nobleman. He reflected on his own life, how he had experienced the agony of betrayal from faithless friends for whom he had done everything, and who had broken his heart by not giving anything back to others but had, simply, hoarded their good fortune. The pure simplicity and courage yet complete honor of this figure was so humbling. Bertie began to cry, and this time the figure gave him a long hard hug and said – “It is done, all is well”. Bertie turned his head just to see Ednut arrive again in his SUV, horns blaring as if to scare away any stray animals in his path. Bertie then turned around to bid the figure goodbye but he was nowhere to be seen. Indeed, his ancestral home was completely empty, and had been so for very many years.
Two days later, having made his visits, Bertie was glad to be sitting again on the big bird to take him back to where home was. He knew as the cabin door closed, and that smell vanished, that he did not belong there. Bertie relaxed in his seat and fell asleep seemingly for hours. “Bertie, Bertie, stop dreaming” a gentle voice called out. As he opened his eyes, Bertie woke up to the smile of his own family beside his hospital bed. He had been sick for several days, and at times, they had worried he would not recover. But here he was…! Bertie knew one thing…he would see the figure again…but not too soon…because then, he would be going to his ancestral home for good!