Why a novel (part 2), and the deeper ‘why’ behind my Maasai adventure
The point I’ve been trying to work up to, in these blog posts, is the deeper ‘why’.
Why I went to Africa; why I stayed so long; why I came back to the UK; and why, this year, I felt I had to write a historical novel called ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’.
I think when you distil it down, it’s about the contrast between material poverty with spiritual wealth, on one side of the world, and spiritual poverty with material wealth, on the other. I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that everyone in Tanzania is blissfully happy all the time even in the face of death and disease, but there really is this mindset in Africa that just makes life so much more liveable. There’s an acceptance of the present moment, and a contentment with what is (even when, on the face of it, ‘what is’ is full of troubles and hardships).
And there’s a genuine faith in God/dess (the Maasai word Engai is grammatically feminine, whereas the Swahili Mungu is gender-neutral) that flows through everyone’s conversation, all the time.
A Tanzanian friend of mine once asked me why white people always `hurry-worry’ and forget about the God who created them, and it’s so true. He gave me the example of tiny ants living in a red hibiscus flower: they don’t worry about tomorrow, they just live in the moment. He’s living in the USA now, though, so he gets it, he understands that we have to hurry-worry because that’s the way the system is designed, and it’s really, really hard to opt out of that system and find another way of being. And now he’s just trying to save up enough money to pay for a ticket back to Tanzania.
Another aspect of the spiritual wealth of Africa is that there’s a real, tangible interdependence, and a recognition of the fact that we truly are `all one’, at a very deep level: you can’t just look at where someone’s body begins and ends, and think that’s the end of who they are as a person. Everything is about the community, and what’s good for the community, rather than the individual. Even material goods get shared around the community, which is pretty frustrating when it’s your expensive watch or mobile phone or whatever and your neighbour’s son’s idea of interacting with it is to take it to pieces and see what’s inside. But hey, it’s all part of the learning curve.
So what I wanted to do with ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’, and more broadly with the whole Songs of Reunion trilogy, is to show that a living spirituality that’s rooted in nature and community doesn’t have to be something ‘out there’. I’ve met some amazing people and been to some wonderful projects that are all about trying to rebuild a sense of community, and restore people’s connection with nature at a very deep level, but I think there’s still this huge tendency to assume that in Britain we don’t have any indigenous knowledge or indigenous spirituality. People are trying to import shamanism from Siberia or sweat lodges from the Native Americans, because that’s what they know about, but beneath the surface we have all these ancient British traditions of our own. We cling on to things like May Day and Halloween but we’ve forgotten the meanings.
There are two things that have been life-changing for me since I came back from Africa. The first was rediscovering this whole British pre-Christian tradition, which has survived or been revived in a whole variety of different forms, like Druidry, Wicca, Paganism, Goddess worship, and so on. That’s what got me back out into nature and making pilgrimages to ancient sacred sites, it’s what enabled me to connect with like-minded people who cared about creativity and community and celebrating the changing seasons, and overall it’s what pulled me out of quite a dark depression.
And the second was rediscovering Christianity, which I will talk about tomorrow.